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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Duma Moves to Protect Witnesses

The State Duma approved in first reading Friday a Kremlin-drafted bill introducing a U.S.-style witness protection program, which proponents call crucial to the country's ongoing judicial reform.

Human rights activists said, however, that the bill contains loopholes that open the door to numerous police abuses.

Under the bill, which was passed 353-1, all parties in criminal cases with the exception of judges and prosecutors are eligible for state-sponsored protection. The list includes relatives and people such as court-summoned experts and interpreters.

The bill envisions security measures for witnesses such as bodyguards, plastic surgery and resettlement with new identities. To enter a program, a witness who has received threats must apply to a court. Within three days, the court must decide whether the applicant is eligible for the program. If the court rejects the appeal, the witness can go to a higher court, which must consider the new appeal within 24 hours.

If the court authorizes protection, the police or another law enforcement agency then is charged with deciding what measures should be taken to protect the witness. The witness is obliged to follow all orders from his guardians and report any new threats.

If a witness is killed, his family would get 45,000 rubles ($1,500) in state compensation. If a witness is left incapacitated as the result of an assault that his guardians failed to avert, he would be entitled to half that amount.

According to police statistics, some 10 million people act as witnesses in court every year. About one-fifth of them come under pressure to change their testimony, and many of them end up doing so. Furthermore, 60 percent of crime victims do not file complaints with the police, mostly out of fear of reprisals, the police said.

Among the bill's more controversial provisions, a witness cannot get rid of his police guardianship quickly in, say, a rapidly changing situation. He has to apply to court. Witnesses' relatives who do not want protection are not given any choice in the matter and cannot appeal a court-imposed ruling. "Anyone could find himself under the watchful eye of unwelcome guardians -- most probably the same police who have not earned the trust of the public," said Lev Levinson of the Institute for Human Rights. "Such a law would make the life of a witness absolutely transparent to his guardians while not providing any confidentiality guarantees over what the guardians might learn about their client."

While the bill says confidentiality procedures must be worked out by the government, that process might take months or years to complete, Levinson said. The legislation, however, will go into effect when it is signed into law.

The bill's authors estimate that about 7,500 people will be in witness protection programs at any given time, costing the government 735 million rubles ($23 million) per year.

Legislators have been trying to establish a witness protection program for years, and the bill approved Friday was the 10th attempt since 1992. The Duma has passed the legislation twice, in 1995 and 1997, but both versions were vetoed by then-President Boris Yeltsin.

In the meantime, Moscow and several regions have set up pilot witness protection programs. The head of the Moscow police witness protection unit, Oleg Gorchilin, said Friday that it was too early to comment on the Duma bill.