Baku, May 15 – Even though Russia has a witness protection program, one out of four witnesses in Russian trials – some 2.5 million people – change their stories when called to the stand fearful that criminals will take reprisal against them, yet another obstacle on Russia’s road to a law-based society.
Many countries have long recognized the need to provide protection to witnesses, and in 1985, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling on countries without such programs to set them up. Russia did not do so until January 2005, but to date only about 5,000 people are being protected under its terms (www.argumenti.ru/publications/9572).
Some of that relatively small group have been moved to new locations, given new names and biographies, and even provided with plastic surgery to change the way they appear, but that has not proved sufficient to guarantee that witnesses will testify accurately or even that they will testify at all.
A major reason for that is the small size of the program. In 2005, the Russian government budgeted only 10 million rubles (400,000 US dollars) for witness protection, an amount so small, “Argumenty i fakty” suggested that criminals can “sleep quietly” because they have enough money to deal with witnesses against them.
Because of a lack of resources, the number of witnesses who are given protection and the amount of protection they receive are absurdly little. In 2006, the weekly reports, only 505 of 17 million witnesses in Russian courts were granted protection, and none of them were assisted with changing their residence or appearance.
Even Ukraine does better, the Moscow paper says, noting that SBU Mykola Melnichenko, who provided transcripts linking that country’s former president with the murder of a journalist, was recently given plastic surgery to change his image and thus provide him with greater protection.
Moreover, the Russian program must contend with popular attitudes: Sixty percent of Russians prefer not to report crimes lest they get involved with the authorities. 41 percent say they are afraid of be subject to pressure if they do serve as witnesses, and 90 percent say they are prepared to change their testimony or remain silent.
The more serious the charges being heard, the more likely witnesses are to have reason to fear that they will be subject to pressure from the accused or his associates. Every fifth witness in such cases, the authorities say, is subject to threats, and “from 150,000 to 300,000 witnesses are subject to pressure from criminal clans.”
And even though the Russian government in 1998 adopted a law providing for the protection of judges and prosecutors, that legislation has not been completely effective either, with many in both subject to threats, something that in the absence of credible protection raises questions about the honesty of their decisions.
Witness protection programs are hardly the first thing people focus on when they discuss the rule of law, but as the “Argumenty i fakty” article suggests, they may be critical, especially in societies like the Russian where people remain deeply skeptical about the courts and about the willingness of the authorities to protect those who simply do their duty and tell the truth.