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Revealed: the secret lives of witnesses

DETAILS OF the highly secretive world of police witness protection schemes have been disclosed for the first time, revealing lives of terror, intimidation and loneliness.

Researchers from the University of Strathclyde interviewed a group of protected witness who had to flee Scotland and were relocated by Strathclyde Police. They were covertly bought back to Scotland for the interviews, which are part of a Scottish Office-funded study: "Making it safe to speak? A study of witness intimidation and protection in Strathclyde".

The research details the extreme levels of violence faced by witnesses to crime. Some had their homes fire-bombed, were run over by a car, slashed with razors, became the target of hitmen hired to kill them, had family members assaulted or received threats to kidnap their children.

Strathclyde Police dealt with 117 cases involving 142 witnesses between September 1996 and July 1998, the period covered by the study. Thirty- seven of the cases were assessed as "level 1" - high or very high threat - and 80 were given "level 2" status - significant to negligible threat.

The researchers interviewed seven men and seven women of those relocated. Their average age was 34. Eight were married or living with a partner.

The families and individuals were moved to new homes and given new identities, but are banned from ever contacting their friends and siblings and received no cash rewards.

The witnesses, whose personal details were kept secret, told of the assaults, threats and intimidation they suffered after criminals found they were going to testify against them. The people threatening them were often former friends or associates or even neighbours and old schoolfriends. One said: "I was getting a lot of threats and someone had already tried to knock me down in a car. I had my windows smashed and my name splashed across walls in spray paints that I was a `grass'.

"Then the incident happened [the witness was severely slashed with a knife]. After that they tried to blow my house up ... After that the police heard that I was to get shot and that they knew where I was staying so I got moved."

Another said: "He came up to the house and said he was ... getting someone from Glasgow, a hit man, to shoot my husband, myself and the kids.

"They [relatives of the witness] were being swore at, spat at, their bins set on fire, her window smashed, things written on her walls with paint."

"I could not deal with it myself because of what he had already done," one said. "He had already killed someone. I would not be any different."

Once accepted by the protection programme, witnesses were usually temporarily placed in bed and breakfast accommodation, although Strathclyde has recently set up a permanent "safe house" to be available to witnesses.

The witnesses were then moved to other parts of the country under new identities. The police helped them to find similar accommodation - this often involved being rehoused in council property. Medical and personal records were also transferred.

One of the greatest hardships is not being allowed contact with loved ones back in Scotland. "I can't even get to see my family. That tears me to pieces. My whole life was back there," recalled one witness. "I have not done anything wrong but I can't even get to see my family. I have nephews growing up and I don't get to see. My whole family is back there. Sometimes I think I will pop up and see my family but I can't."

Once installed in their new homes the witnesses were given panic buttons connected directly to the police, a mobile telephone with a direct link to a personal "handler" who could provide quick police response, and extra security measures on the house.

Although some said they still lived in fear, most praised the police handling of their case and several believed they would be dead if they had not been moved.

"It is 100 per cent better ... we have no fear of intimidation ... no one knew who we were and we did not let anyone know what we were down here for. It was like a fresh start for us," one said.

"I can go out here and nothing bothers me. I can go and chat to the shopkeepers and they will get to know you."

Another said: "We could have 24-hour armed protection outside and you are still going to have that fear."

Of the court cases in which the witnesses were involved, ten of the defendants were found guilty, one was cleared, and three were found "not proven", a verdict not available to English juries.

A growing number of witnesses to murders, attempted killings and other serious crimes are being given protection by the police. The UK's first protection scheme was set up by the Metropolitan Police in 1978, but at least eight forces now run their own programmes, based on a system developed in the United States. The Strathclyde scheme was set up after some of witnesses had been murdered.

The growth of the system follows the increasing willingness of criminals to use extreme violence to silence people.