New legislation to protect witnesses who are called upon to testify in certain high profile, criminal cases will enable them to give their testimony without being seen or identified. But they will be subject to cross-examination to make sure that every accused person gets a fair trial.

The changes are part of the Protection of Witnesses Act, introduced at the last sitting of the House.
In a dramatic departure from tradition, the new law will enable witnesses to testify by way of live-link video or by conference call if the court deems it necessary, so long as the right of an accused person to a fair trial is protected.

Under English Common Law an accused person has the right to confront his accuser. This part of the Common Law is being abolished in Belize. But the lawyer for the accused person will have the right to cross-examine the witness. This right of cross-examination will be lost if the accused person does not have a lawyer.

The testimony of a witness may be taken in court, in chambers, or wherever else the court decides. But if the evidence is given in court the witness can be protected by a one-way veil or curtain which enables him/her to see the accused, but prevents the accused person from seeing or identifying the witness.

A witness testifying by live-link or by conference call is bound by the same rules of evidence as if he or she were in a court of law. The same contempt rules prevail, just as if the person were physically present in the courtroom.

The witness protection procedures do not only apply to gang-related trials. Any offence which involves gun-play, murder or manslaughter, aggravated assault or wounding, robbery or burglary or human trafficking can move the court to invoke witness protection measures.
Any person or newspaper or other media which discloses confidential or privileged information about a witness will be dealt with severely. The law authorizes the court to impose a fine of up to $20,000 or jail time for up to four years or both (fined and confined) for any person responsible for any leaks.

The Witness Protection Act is one of several measures being introduced to fight crime. Others include the Police Amendment Act, the Firearms Amendment Act, and the Crime Control Act.

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