Witness protection needs strengthening

Agency only takes care of witnesses in cases already lodged in court

In Summary

•Witnesses at the stage of investigation remain unprotected, compromising their safety

•Most of the witnesses choose to withdraw from cases due to their safety, making cases crumble, in effect giving accused officers free pass

Josephat Mwenda, a client of the murdered rights lawyer Willie Kimani, would probably be a live today if witness protection was proactive.

Mwenda had two criminal cases before a Mavoko court, one of them involving a police officer whom he accused of shooting him.

In early 2016, he approached the International Justice Mission, a rights group to help him pursue justice for the shooting. He said his life was in danger.

The IJM would in turn write to the Witness Protection Agency twice, requesting that Mwenda be accorded protection. But the agency would dillydally, restrained by legal bureaucracies that cost Mwenda his life in June of the same year.

Alongside his lawyer Kimani and taxi driver Joseph Muiruri, they got kidnapped, tortured and killed. Their bodies were dumped  in a river in Ol-Donyo Sabuk, Machakos county.

The murder most cruel that befell Mwenda alongside other cases depict a witnesses protection regime that is slowly but surely crippling the gains made in over-sighting police power in the country.

Multiple interviews with officials at the Witness Protection Agency, Ipoa and non-state actors, check-mating the impunity and excesses of the police could be increasingly running into headwinds.

The witness protection component of the function is proving to be the weak-link in the process.

The Star learnt that while the Witness Protection Agency works closely with Ipoa, they only engage witnesses in their programmes after the case is actively filed in court.

The interviews painted a worrying trend where complainants or crucial witnesses in a case involving police officers have had to withdraw from such cases, effectively giving the officers who have acted with impunity a free pass to continue with their work.  

Most of the cases affected are where inmates have been beaten to death in police custody.

One sources at Ipoa told the Star in confidence that officers at the grassroots level easily identify persons who are possibly witnesses, complainants or related to them in a way for intimidation or reprisal.

"Most of our cases crumble, most of them at investigation stage, because the complainants or witnesses withdraw at various stages of investigation mainly because they feel enough is not done to protect them from possible reprisal," the source said.

This means that officers who exercise impunity even burgeoning their subjects to death in custody can get a free pass when the witnesses get intimidated and withdraw from cases. 

"You know we investigate officers who are armed and who remain within the areas of their operation. Whenever they learn that a complaint against them have been lodged with the authority, they easily join the dots that the complaint is brought by a relative of the victim or their close associates. It is easy to identify and profile them," the she added.

Once an officer learns of active investigation into their conduct, they can easily compromise security of the witnesses, the source said. 

But WPA director, who requested anonymity, said that the agency treats every case on its own merit and absorbs witnesses at various stages depending on the need.

"Ipoa has no prosecutorial function hence they only develop witnesses after their files forwarded to the DPP is receives the node of approval. In most cases, it is at this point where we come in," the director said.