Witness protection plan approved

A key vote on a proposed witness protection programme for the Cayman Islands was unanimously approved by the Legislative Assembly Monday.

The Justice Protection Bill, 2008, seeks to develop three separate entities, one led by the attorney general’s office and two directed by the police commissioner, which would determine whether witnesses and their associates would be protected in return for their cooperation at trial.

The bill sets out circumstances under which protected witnesses could be placed in ‘safe houses’, guarded by law enforcement personnel, and even makes provision for the creation of separate identities for individuals under the protection of the state.

Attorney General Samuel Bulgin said there’s still some work to be done to incorporate other British Overseas Territories into the witness protection scheme as the bill proposes.

‘The mere passage of this bill…does not bind any other overseas territories and Bermuda,’ Mr. Bulgin said. ‘But it paves the way, hopefully for an agreement between the overseas territories.’

Lawmakers on both sides of the LA floor approved of the bill, although members of both political parties did ask questions about it.

Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush said he was concerned the proposal might not afford the same protection to justices of the peace who sign warrants for law enforcement officials.

However, Mr. Bulgin assured him that JPs were considered under the legislation.

‘We want to find out about exposure of justices,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘Even this week…we see a judge is questioning the, I guess, the veracity or judgment of a justice of the peace. This brings in a whole different scenario.’

Backbench MLA Alfonso Wright also asked what would happen with minors who are witnesses in criminal cases, particularly those who might have to relocate from another overseas territory or country.

Mr. Bulgin said the educational and social development of a child involved in such a case would be looked after.

Under the witness protection bill, police and Crown prosecutors must consider each case to determine whether the individual qualifies for the protection programme.

Participants must be considered a vital and reliable witness in the criminal case they’re testifying in, and cannot be shown to be a risk to the community they live in.

In certain cases, government could be required to provide housing, relocation costs and ‘reasonable living expenses’ for prospective witnesses and their family members, even finding employment and health care coverage.

Witnesses in the programme would have to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Cayman Islands Justice Protection Administrative Centre, one of the entities created by the bill, in order to participate.

The proposal also requires them to provide extensive personal background data including criminal history, property, and sources of income.

Not all criminal cases would qualify for witness protection measures in the bill.

‘Those which may require protective measures for witnesses included cases involving criminal damage, drugs, firearms, hijacking, money laundering, domestic violence, piracy, sex offences, and terrorism.

Mr. Bulgin said that witness protection continues to be a major concern among political leaders in the Caribbean, although he noted the issue is not as severe a concern in Cayman as it is in other countries.

‘It is common knowledge that in some cases witnesses have been shot and killed,’ he told members of the house Monday. ‘In some cases, they absolutely refuse to appear in court.’

The bill marks the first time Cayman has moved to put a formal witness protection programme in place. The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service has provided security in the past for witnesses on an as-needed basis.