Justice Ministry to set up witness protection program by 2007

Program will help witnesses that are often afraid to testify for fear of retribution.

The Justice Ministry is due to put into operation a witness protection program in 2007 for witnesses considered to be in serious danger from criminals against whom they provided evidence, a ministry spokesman announced on Sunday. The program will be run by a special authority to be established within the Justice Ministry, consisting of an administrative section and a unit of security guards who will not belong to the police department - but whose entire task will be to protect the high risk witnesses. According to the Justice Ministry, the state currently offers alleviating terms for "low ranked" criminals who are prepared to provide information or testify against high ranked criminals. Furthermore, there are often innocent passers-by who witness crimes and can provide first-hand testimony against their perpetrators. However, both kinds of witnesses are often afraid to testify for fear of retribution. This is especially true in cases where organized crime is involved, or in cases of domestic violence and trafficking in women. For lack of incriminating evidence, the state is often forced to cut deals with dangerous criminals because it cannot be sure of winning the case against them in court. In 2002, then-State Attorney Edna Arbel appointed former Jerusalem District Attorney Moshe Lador to provide recommendations for establishing a program to guarantee the safety of such witnesses who were considered to be in special danger. The Justice Ministry estimated that there are about 20 such witnesses each year. After Lador submitted his report, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and State Attorney Eran Shendar decided to adopt the American system, whereby the witness protection authority would belong to the Justice Ministry. One of the reasons for this was to guarantee that the officers responsible for protecting witnesses would not be policemen who might be hauled away for other policing duties. The authority will be responsible for drafting the rules and regulations for protecting witnesses, finding safe houses for them, seeing to it that witnesses who are serving sentences will receive better prison conditions, and changing laws where required, in order to allow the program to be implemented. Livni said she would bring the proposal to the cabinet in the next few weeks, and a joint committee of Justice Ministry and Internal Security officials will prepare a preliminary organizational and budgetary plan and a timetable, while the two ministries will negotiate with the treasury on a budget for the program.