What happens when criminals step into witness protection

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Human trafficking, terrorism, organized crime: perpetrators often cannot be punished because the witnesses do not testify for fear of acts of revenge. The small parliamentary chamber has now passed a law aimed at improving witness protection.

This content was published on June 12, 2011 - 5:04 pm
Eveline Kobler, swissinfo.ch

Anyone who makes a statement in a trial against human traffickers or other criminal organizations must expect to be threatened or even eliminated by the perpetrators and their helpers. Therefore, many witnesses and victims do not dare to testify.

In Switzerland to this day, the cantons must guarantee the protection of witnesses. They do this differently. "Up until now there have been no actual extra-procedural witness protection programs in Switzerland. The legal basis for this was missing," says Andreas Leuzinger from the Federal Office of Police (fedpol). This basis is to be created with the proposal that the Council of States (small parliamentary chamber) adopted this week.

"This question becomes important in lawsuits against human traffickers but also in negotiations in the area of ​​organized crime, such as against drug and arms dealers or in terrorism," says Leuzinger.

Nothing works without cooperation

"In cases of serious threat to the witness, the identity can be changed and the person can even be placed in another country." This is necessary in cases in which it is not possible to let someone live inconspicuously in Switzerland, for example because of the color of their skin or their ethnicity.

Both Swiss citizens and foreign citizens can be accepted into a program. The closest relatives of a threatened witness can also be included in the program, including children. Changing your identity, says Leuzinger, means leaving everything behind and never having contact with your friends again.

The responsible public prosecutor will apply for membership in a future extra-procedural witness protection program during the trial, but the person concerned must participate voluntarily. "Only people who work with the responsible authorities can join a witness protection program," says Leuzinger.

Persons who refuse to testify in court or who do not provide any information that substantially serves to clarify a criminal offense will not be accepted. Even people who have committed criminal acts have little chance.

Anyone who does not cooperate or does not adhere to the rules of conduct after joining a program will be dismissed from the program because otherwise safety cannot be guaranteed.

"It has happened before that someone who has assumed a different identity under witness protection has set up a Facebook profile under both his old and his new name." In such cases, the authorities responsible for protection are powerless. "You can leave a program voluntarily at any time," says Leuzinger.

Witness protection office planned

If the law is also adopted by the National Council (large parliamentary chamber), the federal government should set up a central witness protection office. Around 10 specialized people will work there, says Leuzinger. On the one hand, the office would take on the necessary clarifications at home and abroad and also advise the cantons on how to deal with less serious cases.

Because: "Witness protection does not always mean that the person receives a new identity. In the less severe cases, it is sufficient if the person is monitored during the process or if only the name and place of residence are changed," says Leuzinger.

In addition, the witness protection office would offer behavioral advice for almost all areas of life for people in a witness protection program, says Leuzinger. In Switzerland, 10 to 15 cases per year are expected to require inclusion in a program. Several people can be affected per case.

Sometimes it is not the witness himself who is most threatened, says Leuzinger. "The relatives in the home country are often exposed to a greater threat if someone testifies against human trafficking in Switzerland." Switzerland is therefore already working with foreign agencies and local authorities so that the relatives can also be protected.

According to Andreas Leuzinger, with the new law on extra-procedural witness protection, the clarification of serious crimes can be ensured in a more targeted manner through the willingness and ability of a witness to give evidence.

Convention against Trafficking in Human Beings

The Federal Council presented the small chamber with a convention on combating trafficking in human beings together with the federal law on extra-procedural witness protection.

The Council of Europe Convention, which Switzerland actively worked on, sets legal standards in the areas of criminal law, victim assistance, immigration law and procedural and extra-procedural witness protection.

This change in the law is a prerequisite for Switzerland to be able to sign the Council of Europe Convention against Trafficking in Human Beings.

Until the new law comes into force - if it is adopted by the National Council, it will apply from January 1, 2013 - witness protection will continue to be regulated by the cantons.

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