Knesset to Debate Creation of Witness-protection Program

Various obstacles have delayed the program, which the Justice Ministry says is crucial to solving serious cases.

Police believe that at any given moment, 20 key witnesses are under threat. Varda Shaham, the head of the Justice Ministry's department for the investigation of police officers, mentioned the statistic Monday during a debate of the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee ahead of the second and third readings of a witness protection bill.

Shaham told committee members that several witnesses with information regarding serious crimes will only cooperate with law-enforcement authorities once they and their family members are ensured the protection of a Witness Protection Authority, as the bill would guarantee.

Shaham added that despite the temptation, police abstain from making agreements with certain witnesses, "because we know we cannot provide protection." He estimated that with the advent of the Witness Protection Authority, "there will be a substantial increase in the serious cases we solve."

Gal Levertov, who heads the state prosecution's international crimes division, estimated that "many offenses, mostly organized crime, are not even revealed, because of threats leveled against witnesses." Levertov believes it likely that far more witnesses are threatened than is currently known. However, he emphasized that it is impossible to move all these witnesses to Scandinavian countries.

Arieh Levanah, who will head the planned Witness Protection Authority, said that if the law is ratified this year, the authority will be able to begin handling witnesses in 2009; by 2010 it will be able to handle its estimated maximum of 20 witnesses a year.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said Israel's WPA will face a far more dangerous task than its global counterparts as a result of the longer trial process, which can drag on for years.

Internal Affairs Committee Chairman Ophir Pines-Paz condemned the fact that six years have passed since the Lador Report recommended establishing such an authority. "Who knows how many cases have remained unsolved because of the delay," he asked.

The witness protection program is expected to constitute a key tool in the police and state prosecution's battle against both serious and organized crime. Senior police officials have reiterated in recent months how central such a program is to recruiting witnesses who are otherwise unwilling to incriminate veteran criminals, for fear of retaliation. They have also called the long delays in establishing the WPA a "farce," as the Finance Ministry dragged its feet when it came to the appointments process.

Dichter instructed Public Security Ministry officials to cut the red tape a year ago and ordered them to be ready for their first witness in early 2008. However, bureaucratic and legislative obstacles caused substantial delays.

The new authority is slated to provide physical protection even after witnesses have testified, until their lives are no longer in danger. The witness protection program is slated to include the option of new identities for witnesses, moving them and their families to overseas locations, substantially increasing penalties for those convicted of witness intimidation, and more.

The program has been marred by delays in implementation since 2002, when a team first drafted an initial plan - only in late December 2007 was a bill prepared for Knesset approval. Police data indicates that in 2002-2004, an average of 379 witness tampering and obstruction of justice cases were opened annually.