Witness Protection

Witnesses in serious and transnational crime cases are often at risk of intimidation, physical harm, or murder. To ensure the safety of witnesses, and in an effort to safeguard their testimony at trial, serious efforts need to be made to protect witness.

There are at least four types of witness protection measures. The first type is the physical protection of the witness and his or her family in the period of time after they have come forward to the police until they testify at trial. Measures can include placing the witness in a safe house and ensuring the witness has round-the-clock close protection.

The second type is witness protection measures are termed “procedural protections” because they are usually contained in a country’s criminal procedure code. Under procedural protections, the identity of a witness is protected from the public. Measures to protect a witness’s identity include: (1) expunging the witness’s name from the public record; (2) prohibiting counsel or a suspect from revealing the name of the witness to anyone; and (3) making efforts to conceal the features or physical description of the witness at trial (e.g., allowing the witness to testify behind an opaque shield). The identity of a witness can also be withheld temporarily from the accused and his or her lawyer as part of procedural protections. Measures to accomplish this include (1) nondisclosure of records that identify the witness to the accused and his or her lawyer until a reasonable time before the trial; and (2) assignment of a pseudonym (e.g., the witness would be designated with a title such as “Witness AB” or “Witness Z”).

The third type, utilized in some (but not all countries) is the use anonymous witnesses, in which case the accused and his or her lawyer will never find out the identity of the witness testifying. This is used as a last-resort, exceptional measure, because it gravely impinges on the human rights of the accused person (e.g., the right to examine witnesses). When anonymity is used, human rights safeguards need to be introduced. Many of these have been outlined by international courts adjudicating on the human rights compliance of witness protection measures.

The fourth type of witness protection is known as “witness protection programs.” These programs are used after trial to ensure the continued safety of a witness and involve the relocation of witnesses and giving them new identities.

Below are links to resources that provide information on a variety of measures to protect witnesses, best practices in establishing and implementing those measures, and consideration of human rights in this process.