Editorial: Protect victims

Although relocation of the vulnerable with changed identity has been suggested, is this feasible in a small country like ours?

The trial of Mohammad Aftab Alam, Nepali Congress lawmaker and a former minister, for the alleged grisly murder of 19 men has taken many twists and turns, with the victims and witnesses now facing intimidation and threats to retract their statements in court. Alam is accused of dumping 19 people, who were injured in a blast while making a bomb to disrupt the Constituent Assembly elections in 2008, alive into the inferno of a brick kiln, a crime that subdues even the most gruesome plots seen in Indian cinema. At least two persons – the wife of a victim and another, a surviror of the blast - have said they gave statements in the Rauthat District Court under duress. There is worry as to what will become of them in the absence of a comprehensive law to protect victims and witnesses in the country. There is a Crime Victim Protection Act, but it only ensures security to the victim – not the witness – and that too for a temporary period of time. Given the criminal intent of Alam and his supporters, witnesses and the families of the victims could face threats throughout life for going against them.

Despite the denials, an audio tape of a recent conversation between Alam’s supporters and a family member of Oshi Akhtar, a victim of the blast in Rajpur, only shows the extent of intimidation and coercion used to change statements in court. The 37-minute tape has two of Alam’s men promising Rs 500,000 in cash and five kathhas of land – said to be worth about Rs 1.5 million – in exchange for changing the statement in court. Consequently, Amana Khatun, Akhtar’s wife, went to the Rautahat District Court and filed an application saying that her husband had gone abroad for employment before the blast and had not returned home since. The tape has Alam’s men giving death threats - like a hit from a motorbike - should Akhtar’s family refuse to cooperate. On Tuesday, Indian national Gaurishankar Chamar, the survivor of the bomb blast who had sneaked into Bihar to undergo treatment, told the media that he was kidnapped by Alam’s men and forced to retract his statement.

In the absence of a mechanism to provide security and protect witnesses and victims of a crime, it will be very difficult for them to come forward and make an appeal. And even if they do, they could be forced to retract their statement under intimidation and threat to life by criminals. This perhaps explains why rape victims often refrain from filing cases in court, although stigma could be a major reason. There is plenty we could learn from the developed world on how the issue could be tackled. Relocation with change of identity is widely practised in countries like the United States. While some advocates have suggested relocation of those who are vulnerable,

is this feasible in a small country like ours where everybody knows everyone around in a community? For now, until a permanent mechanism can be worked out, the government might need to have a temporary structure in place to provide protection to Chamar and Khatun from Alam’s men. Any untoward incident now or later will be a blight on the government’s image.

Electronic stickers

With a view to controlling fraudulent activities by middlemen hoodwinking the migrant workers, the government started providing electronic stickers to outbound migrant workers from Wednesday. The Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) prepared the e-stickers for all forms of work permits to be issued by labour offices across the country. DoFE officials said the move was aimed at protecting the migrant workers from the middlemen.

As per the provision, the foreign job aspirants will be able to use their e-mail or mobile phone numbers to receive the e-stickers, which will be automatically provided to the migrant workers. The workers will be able to clear the immigration after presenting the printed e-sticker or showing it on their devices to the concerned officials. Under the first phase, such facility will be made available only to the migrant workers. This move will discourage the local and foreign middlemen from issuing fake stickers, which often puts innocent job-seekers in difficulty. The issuance of online e-sticker is also expected to end illegal migration or human trafficking to other countries. This is a new provision, and the DoFE should issue a public notice so that all migrant workers can benefit from it.