Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bill expands witness protection

Aims at tackling terrorism and 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.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2012 A7

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