As Knesset Approves Bill, Witness Protection Program Makes Aliyah

Under new law approved for 2nd and 3rd readings, witnesses can change identity but not sex or religion.

Israelis placed in a witness protection program will be able to have cosmetic surgery to change their appearance, but will not be allowed to claim that they have a new religious identity or to undergo a sex change, according to a bill to be brought before the Knesset plenum for its second and third readings this week.

Aryeh Livneh, the first director of the Israel Witness Protection Authority, expects the agency to begin protecting witnesses and providing them with new identities next year. The authority is expected to grant new identities to all 20 Israelis who are in need of it by 2010.

At any given moment, 20 key witnesses face a serious threat to their lives, Varda Shoham, who heads the Israel Police investigations unit, told the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee before it approved the bill for its second and third readings Sunday.

Police think the new authority will make the fight against organized crime much easier. Some witnesses have information about serious offenses, but say they don't want to talk until they know their families are safe.

According to the proposed legislation, witnesses in the program will be allowed to have documents attesting to a different name, age and country of birth. They will also be allowed to change their residence and employment history, but will not be able to claim professional training or licensing that they have not earned. They will also not be allowed to change their family or health status.

Since Israel is such a small country, some witnesses in the program will be sent abroad. Gal Levertov, who heads the state prosecution's international division, said some, but not all, of the witnesses will be sent to Scandinavian countries.

The law, if passed, provides the legal basis for the witness protection authority to provide witnesses and their families with a new identity, protection, financial and employment assistance, and another place to live, either in Israel or abroad.

MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), who heads the Knesset's Internal Affairs Committee, initiated the project. He submitted a private member's bill at the beginning of the decade calling for the authority to be established, leading to the formation of an inter-ministerial committee headed by attorney Moshe Lador, now the state prosecutor, to study the issue. The committee recommended in 2004 that Israel establish an independent professional authority to coordinate witness protection, develop the tools necessary to do so and provide security for witnesses at risk. The government authorized the establishment of the witness protection program as a unit in the Public Security Ministry in January 2006, but did not submit its bill on the matter until February of this year.

The head of the police investigation and intelligence unit will be responsible for deciding whether a witness at risk should be entered into the protection program, according to the proposal. The process will require authorization on many levels, partly to prevent endangering witnesses because of an incomplete change in their personal details and partly because of the high cost to the state. The bill also gives district courts the authority to order a change in identity and provision of a new identity.

Witnesses who enter the protection program will not be allowed to use their previous identity, for instance, to vote twice or to receive double their National Insurance Institute allowances. Protected witnesses who violate the conditions of the protection will be indicted and be required to return the money invested in protecting them.