About 60pc cases suffer as witnesses unwilling to testify for intimidation, hassle; govt talks of a protection act
Zafrun Nahar had spent five years trying to have her son’s killers punished. But no witness showed up to testify at the trial.
Frustrated that all her hard work brought nothing, she now sees no point in trying. “I have waited enough…seen enough. But no more do I wait for justice,” says a battle-weary Zafrun, 61.
Her elder son Himel, 25, was shot dead on Salimullah Road in the capital’s Mohammadpur area in February 1997.
In the murder trial, 34 dates had been set for testimony of the prosecution witnesses. But no-one dared to appear in the court in the face of intimidation by the accused and their associates.
The case proceedings have been stayed by the High Court since January 14, 2002.
Fed up that the trial was going nowhere, Zafrun did not move to have the HC order vacated in last eight years.
Meantime, the accused have secured bail and three of the six eyewitnesses left the country failing to withstand intimidation.
The defendants began bullying the witnesses even before the case went to the court.
“They gathered in front of my house every night, shouting abuse,” said an eyewitness to Himel murder.
One afternoon, another witness was picked up from his office and coerced into giving a statement saying he did not see anything.
“I don’t blame the witnesses. Even I would fear for my life while returning home from the court,” Zafrun said.
“I won’t carry it anymore and won’t go to court anymore,” she added.
Currently, Zafrun is sick and suffering from various diseases. It would not be possible for her to pursue the case even if she wanted.
Lawyers say numerous are the instances where cases could not be resolved even in 20 years due to absence of witnesses. And this is one of the reasons why the courts have to grapple with a huge backlog of cases.
A ballpark estimate is that at least 60% cases in every court suffer for witnesses unwilling to testify, say some public prosecutors at Dhaka judge’s court.
According to a parliamentary sub-committee report, over 15 lakh cases were pending in subordinate courts till January.
Cases relating to women and children repression can be taken as an example. Though the cases are supposed to be settled in 180 days since their initiation, 1,426 cases including 682 in Dhaka are stuck in different courts.
“In more than half the cases, witnesses are not available. Sometimes victims are implicated in false cases so they cannot pursue the case,” said Dr Bilkis Begum, coordinator of Dhaka medical College’s One Stop Crisis Centre.
Law Minister Shafique Ahmed said, “We want to formulate a law to ensure witness protection, and have already asked the ministry to examine everything relevant.”
The problem is so acute that the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in a ruling observed that witnesses do not want to appear before court for fear of reprisals.
In this context, it said, a court can pass verdict on single evidence, provided the proof is convincing.
How many cases are hung for intimidation of witnesses cannot be known, as neither the complainants nor the witnesses file complaints with court or general diaries (GD) with police station.
“It’s no use filing a GD. The accused keep terrorising the witnesses, as police do nothing,” said Shahid Khan who has recently filed a GD with Madaripur Police Station after receiving death threats from those accused of killing his younger brother.
Sometimes it gets beyond intimidation and costs a witness his life.
On May 18, Jubo League activist Rahim was killed in Mirpur while on his way home.
Belayet, who was accompanying him and also injured in the attack, said Rahim was killed as he had seen the murder of a local Jubo League leader.
“Now it’s my turn. The killers are after me. They have been threatening me because I’m the second eyewitness to the first murder and main eyewitness to Rahim killing,” he added.
Lawyers said police rarely act on a GD, leaving the complainant exposed to intimidation and constant threat of attack.
Besides, public prosecutors do not want to cite intimidation as a reason for non-appearance of witness as that would lay bare the state’s failure.
Tawhida Khandker, director of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA), said, “Over 50 percent of our cases are making no progress, as witnesses don’t want to show up for intimidation and lack of security.”
Stressing the need for a witness protection act, BNWLA Executive Director Salma Ali said the law must seek to ensure safe shelter, various support services and treatment for victims and witnesses, and punishment to those harassing the victim or witness.
It must also provide for use of interpreter and modern technologies like teleconferencing in taking deposition.
She also said the provision for witness protection in the existing law is inadequate.
Besides intimidation, financial constraints contribute to non-appearance of witnesses, lawyers said.