Where witnesses fear to tread

WITNESSES have long feared for their lives in this country. That fact has long troubled our crime-plagued society, eating into the confidence of law enforcement authorities seeking to build evidential cases at trial, harming confidence in the integrity of the judicial system, and forcing procedural reforms that have at times appeared to be capitulation to the status quo, such as the mushrooming of paper committals.

However, the fact that even international witnesses, who potentially have useful information which could help local officials get to the bottom of thorny legal and evidential issues, now openly express reluctance to take the stand is a mark of the damage that has been done to our international reputation by crime. It’s a sign of a lack of confidence. This should trouble all.

Understand the damage caused when witnesses are afraid. Such fear prevents police from getting the tips they need to begin to link the dots. It also emboldens criminals to act in a more brazen manner.

The disclosure that Christopher Wylie, who is understood to be a whistleblower in the international Cambridge Analytica scandal, has expressed concerns for his safety in coming to Trinidad to give evidence is in some respects unsurprising. However, it confirms a worrying trend. Disgraced QC Vincent Nelson, too, has cited fears for his safety in relation to ongoing matters.

Wylie potentially has useful information, and not just in relation to the Cambridge Analytica matter which has been engaging the attention of a Parliament committee. He could also have insights in relation to the joint select committee set up to review cybercrime law proposals, proposals which, with each passing day, stand to become more and more irrelevant in light of the scandalous revelations that have been laid bare, first by the Edward Snowden disclosures and now by the Cambridge Analytica fallout.

One way or another, it is in everyone’s interest to get to the bottom of the matters that have been placed before Parliament or elsewhere, particularly as they relate to the usage of private data as well as the integrity of the electoral process. That is why Wylie’s fears are so damaging.

Those fears are a sign we now live in a state defined around the world by its crime problem, a state in which it is felt that criminals have the upper hand. It does not help when there are witness protection programmes that have seen people killed notwithstanding protections granted and for which questions are frequently raised. But the matter is not simply one of bolstering witness protection.

It also relates to the State’s harnessing of the modern technology that could help it fight crime better. DNA and body cameras are the tip of the iceberg. The only way to stop people from being afraid is to get a handle on the situation by using the technological tools that gain results.


"Where witnesses fear to tread"

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