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Bill expands witness protection to fight terrorism, organized crime

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OTTAWA - Canada's spy and defence agencies — not just police — would be able to refer people to the federal witness protection program under changes proposed Tuesday.

The Safer Witnesses Act, tabled in the House of Commons, is aimed at more effectively tackling terrorism and organized crime, said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

"We know that organized crime is becoming more global, transnational and pervasive," Toews said.

"In some cases, law enforcement relies on the co-operation of individuals formerly involved with these organizations in order to disrupt their activities or successfully prosecute the ringleaders."

The federal witness program, administered by the RCMP, shields people who help authorities by providing everything from short-term protection to permanent relocation and identity changes.

However, Toews said there will be no new money for the Mounties to broaden the witness program and any additional funding must be found within the national police force's existing budget.

The legislation would also:

— Make it easier for witnesses in provincial programs to obtain new identities;

— Impose new restrictions on the disclosure of information, to help make the program more secure;

— Increase the emergency protection that may be provided to witnesses to 180 days from the current 90 days.

Revelations five years ago that a protectee committed a murder while in the program triggered a wave of review.

Some members have sued over their treatment in the program, while others have been kicked out.

The bill contains new provisions spelling out how a witness may leave the program voluntarily.

But Toews said Tuesday the government rejected a proposal to put decisions as to who gets into the program in the hands of an independent agency. It also opted against creating an external advisory board to serve as a watchdog.

NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison said he would have liked to see those elements. He also questioned whether police forces across the country would be able to make use of the program without additional funding.

But he said the New Democrats would likely support the bill, which he called a positive step.

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae noted that intimidation of potential witnesses in the 1985 Air India bombing case was a clear problem.

"What we want to do is make sure that where we know there are circumstances which are going to give rise to intimidation, that in fact people are genuinely and deeply protected and have the confidence that they in fact will be protected."

Rae said he would wait to hear "from the experts in the field" as to whether the new legislation goes far enough. "I think the fact that we have the legislation in front of us is a good sign."

Protection is currently available to witnesses referred from any police service in Canada, as well as from some foreign agencies.

Under the new legislation, federal departments and agencies with a mandate relating to national security, national defence or public safety would also be able to refer witnesses to the program.

The proposed federal changes follow recommendations from a Commons committee, an inquiry into the Air India bombing and extensive consultations with the provinces.

Several provinces have their own witness-protection programs, but often they provide only short-term assistance. In addition, obtaining new federal identity documents for protectees requires co-operation with the Mounties.

The changes announced Tuesday are intended to simplify the process of obtaining these crucial documents and generally improve relations with provincial agencies.

Ontario and Alberta have been pushing for more federal recognition of their witness programs.

The Air India commission said it was inappropriate for a police agency with an interest in ensuring sources agree to become witnesses to also make decisions about admission into a witness-protection program.

"This is a conflict of interest," said the commission's 2010 report.

Toews said the government considered handing some witness protection functions to the Justice Department but the idea was rejected because the department lacked the Mounties' expertise.

"(The RCMP are) the ones who are in the best position, federally speaking, to determine how in fact to deal with witnesses in need of protection and the extent of that protection," he said.

"While the discussion was a useful one, ultimately we determined that it would be best for efficiency and overall protection of the witnesses to remain with the RCMP."

The Mounties declined to discuss witness protection Tuesday, referring all questions to Public Safety.

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