on 19 March 1998
Provisional Legislative Council
Panel on Security
Protection of Witnesses
This paper informs Members of the current measures adopted by the Police and the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) to protect witnesses.
2. It is important to encourage witnesses to come forward and bring offenders to justice. To this end, the Police and ICAC have adopted a number of measures to ensure that witnesses are reassured, informed of their rights and adequately protected.
Measures to protect witnesses
3. In general, the Police and ICAC have adopted the following to protect witnesses -
- an information leaflet/sheet (Annex) which explains the rights of crime witnesses are provided to all witnesses by the Police/ ICAC;
- all witnesses will be provided with an Officer Contact Card by the Police and ICAC. This card provides the person with the telephone number of the officer-in-charge of the investigation and the name of the investigating officer. This ensures that an officer with intimate knowledge of the investigation is available to advise the witness on a 24-hour basis;
- each land region of the Police has at least one one-way viewer identification parade room. As regards ICAC, one-way viewer identification parade facility is available in their Operations Department. Such parades would be conducted when the Police/ ICAC have reasonable grounds to believe that there is an appreciable risk of retaliation or the witness is apprehensive about the possibility of retaliation. Otherwise, face to face interviews would be conducted. The Police/ ICAC would only refer to witnesses by their witness number and avoid speaking their names or other identifying particulars within the hearing of the suspects in any parades;
- when witness statements or other documents have to be provided to the defendant, e.g. as part of the committal process, the telephone number, address and other identifying particulars of the witness will be deleted or rendered illegible;
- in cases where the witness is frightened to give evidence in court, the court may permit the person to give evidence or be examined by way of a live television link under section 79B of the Criminal Procedure Ordinance (Cap 221). In cases involving certain sexual offences, the publication or broadcast of anything likely to identify the victim is prohibited under section 156 of the Crimes Ordinance (Cap 200); and
- the officer-in-charge of the case will offer protection measures, such as physical protection to and from court, if necessary.
Witness Protection Programmes
4. Following the collapse of a murder trial in October 1992 because a key prosecution witness declined to give evidence, the Administration decided to strengthen the witness protection measures. A Police Witness Protection Unit (WPU) and an ICAC Witness Security Panel (WSP) were set up in April and June 1995 respectively. They are responsible for operating the Witness Protection Programmes (WPPs). The key features of WPPs are as follows -
- a professional threat assessment system is adopted to ascertain justifications for providing protection for a witness. This is currently conducted by the Police WPU and the ICAC WSP. Requests are normally made by the officer-in-charge of the case but could also be initiated by members of the public who regard themselves as witnesses at risk;
- the protection package to be provided for a witness will be determined by a high level approving authority. The approving authority for the Police and ICAC WPPs are the Director of Crime and Security and the Director of Investigations respectively;
- a written undertaking of acceptance will be signed by the witness and the Police or ICAC setting out the conditions under which protection is made;
- relocation arrangements will be made within Hong Kong, or outside Hong Kong subject to the acceptance of a third country. In the case of relocation within Hong Kong, the protected witness may be placed in special accommodation called safehouses with round-the-clock protection by WPP officers or arrangements can be made with the Housing Department to allocate a new housing unit for the protected witness. In the case of relocation overseas, the relevant Consulates will be approached on a case-by-case basis;
- witnesses to be offered protection will be closely consulted on the form of such protection. They can opt out of the protection arrangements and ask for alteration of the protection measures; and
- a notification of termination will be signed by the witness and the Police or ICAC to formalise the termination of protection.
5. Up to the end of February 1998, the Police WPU and the ICAC WSP have received a total of 28 and 2 requests for witness protection respectively. Of these, 19 and 2 requests have been accepted by the Police and ICAC respectively. The Police did not accept the other 9 requests since the witnesses either failed to pass the professional threat assessment or refused to be admitted to the WPP
6. At present, the decisions of the Police/ ICAC to refuse to admit a witness into the WPP, or to withdraw protection from a witness who has entered the WPP are subject to appeals. All witnesses will be informed of the appeal mechanism by the officer-in-charge of the case if they are dissatisfied with the protection measures offered. The Witness Protection Appeal Board, the appeal body in the Police, is chaired by the Deputy Commissioner of Police (Operation). Members include the Deputy Secretary for Security and four non-official members appointed by the Chief Executive. As for the ICAC, they have no formal appeal Board at present. Appeals are made to the Commissioner of ICAC. So far, neither the Police nor ICAC have received any appeals.
7. Changing the identity of witnesses is not a feature in the existing WPP. However, changing the identity, together with other related measures such as relocation, is considered to be effective both in terms of physical protection, and especially in providing psychological reassurance to high-risk witnesses. To further improve our witness protection system, we introduced the Witness Protection Bill to the previous LegCo in July 1996 to provide the legal basis for, amongst others, the change of identity of witnesses. No Bills Committee however was set up and the Bill eventually lapsed. We now plan to re-introduce the Bill to the first SAR LegCo in the Legislative Programme 1998/ 99.