RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian government passed a bill Oct. 7 to protect whistleblowers, witnesses and experts — including their relatives — in cases of corruption. The law thus entered into force without the need for President Mahmoud Abbas’ ratification.
The Palestinian Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) started drafting the law in June and forwarded it to the Cabinet for approval. The PACC aims to push for a culture of reporting corruption and building a legal procedure to support the legislation.
The PACC was established in 2010 as per Law No. 7 as an independent, administrative and financial commission. Its head is appointed under a presidential decree issued by the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The PACC's director of legal affairs, Racha Amarneh, told Al-Monitor the commission has the obligation to comply with the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which Palestine signed in May 2014.
Article 32 of the UN Convention against Corruption, titled “Protection of witnesses, experts, and victims,” stipulates that “Each State Party shall take appropriate measures in accordance with its domestic legal system and within its means to provide effective protection from potential retaliation or intimidation for witnesses and experts who give testimony concerning offenses established in accordance with this Convention and, as appropriate, for their relatives and other persons close to them.”
On protection of the whistleblowers, Article 33 of the same convention stipulates that “Each State Party shall consider incorporating into its domestic legal system appropriate measures to provide protection against any unjustified treatment for any person who reports in good faith and on reasonable grounds to the competent authorities any facts concerning offenses established in accordance with this Convention.”
The law recently approved specified mechanisms in place to protect whistleblowers. Amarneh confirmed that the law provides professional, personal and legal protection to individuals as deemed necessary by the witness protection unit — which the PACC recently formed — and the head of the PACC. Professional protection guarantees that “the job of a whistleblower or witness in a corruption case would not be jeopardized. The person would not be professionally punished or marginalized. This protection encompasses individuals working in the private sector, the government, local unions and civil society organizations.”
When it comes to personal protection, Amarneh affirmed that the law protects whistleblowers and witnesses from any threat, danger or assault on their person, property or relatives through cooperation with the security apparatus and police. If necessary, they would be provided with a security detail to protect them and their property or moved to a safe house.
The law legally protects whistleblowers, as they would not be subject to criminal prosecution if they are reporting corruption. Amarneh stated that the law allows financial aid to those under legal protection and compensation for damage in case any were incurred on their person or property. The law also protects the family — up to the fourth degree — of a witness or whistleblower. It protects those closely tied to them who are not family members but whom authorities could exploit to pressure whistleblowers.
Amarneh said the law has put in place procedures to record and listen to the testimonies of whistleblowers and witnesses in court, and, should they be unable to be present in court for security reasons, this would be done through videoconferencing.
She pointed out that protection would be lifted once the danger is no longer present or in case the whistleblower breaks the rules or submits a written statement requesting the removal of protection.
The approval of the law complemented the PACC’s procedures, which it started putting in place in November 2018 through the amendments to the Palestinian Anti-Corruption Commission Law. The amendments, approved in November 2018, included new texts allowing for the drafting of new regulations the PACC requires to do its job. One of the regulations was the law on the protection of whistleblowers, according to Amarneh.
Once the law was approved, Amarneh said, “The [PACC] created the witness protection unit, which is specialized in studying the applications that whistleblowers, witnesses and experts in corruption cases will forward.”
Over the upcoming weeks, a number of regulations will be approved to continue building the legal framework to fight corruption. The PACC launched a new yearly procedure for financial disclosure on Oct. 15.
“Among those regulations, one will require workers to declare any gifts. This will be applied to everyone, starting with the Prime Minister. The regulations will clarify the protocols for that and how to incorporate it institutionally. It will also be required for conflict of interest to be declared,” Amarneh said.
This draft regulation, which is currently under review by the government, will prevent public sector employees from receiving any gifts from a party dealing with a governmental institution.
From early 2019 until the end of September, the commission received 410 cases and complaints. According to Amarneh, 31 of these cases were submitted to the prosecutor and there is a follow-up on the rest. In some cases, the evidence of corruption was insufficient. However, the cases passed on to the prosecution in 2018 were 28 out of 492.
PACC head Ahmad Barak revealed Sept. 9 the commission’s determination to create the Palestinian Anti-Corruption Academy under presidential approval in order to strengthen investigations of corruption cases by basing them on empirical evidence. The academy has yet to be formed.
Executive director of the Coalition for Integrity and Accountability Majdi Abu Zaid told Al-Monitor that approving the law for the protection of whistleblowers, witnesses and experts is an achievement since it is part of the apparatus to fight corruption and has been a demand of the coalition for years.
Abu Zaid pointed out the importance of continuing to build an anti-corruption legal framework and improving it — especially through passing a law to guarantee the right to access information. He mentioned that civil society organizations are vehemently working on it.
He also expressed concern about the law in terms of protecting those who present an application to the commission. Some whistleblowers might not know about the law protecting them or do not know the gravity of the situation. Protection must include all whistleblowers prior to their submitting the application.
Zaid criticized the fact that protection only encompasses those reporting to the commission. He noted, “An employee might file a complaint to the administrative or financial authorities of the Palestinian government or to his superior, so there should be a mechanism of communication between these institutions in cases of corruption that might put whistleblowers in danger. Those mechanisms should not require the person to have submitted a report directly to the commission.”
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