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Two more withdraw from missing women hearings

The BC Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International have withdraw their participation from the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry charging that the process does not provide support or legal protection for Downtown Eastside community members or the groups representing them.

Announcing their decision at a press conference in Vancouver this morning, the two civil rights organizations join ten other parties that have dropped out of the inquiry to date.

"This inquiry is making the same mistake that allowed Robert Pickton operate for as long as he did in the Downtown Eastside: it is ignoring the voices of women who have information to share and marginalizing those voices at every turn," says David Eby, executive director of the BCCLA.

As The Tyee reported last week, twenty of the twenty one non-government parties granted standing in the inquiry asked the provincial government to provide additional funding for legal representation. In a written statement, Solicitor General Shirley refused the request, citing a lack of funding.

Currently, the government has funded fourteen lawyers to represent police and government groups. There are two lawyers representing a diffuse coalition of community organizations.

The decision not to provide equal representation to each standing party is at odds with recent history, says Eby. The twenty one groups participating in the on-going Cohen Commission have been granted funding to obtain council. Likewise, the BCCLA was granted funding during the official inquiry into the death of Frank Paul.

Both the BCCLA and Amnesty International also blame provincial prosecutors for failing to provide legal immunity to those participating in the hearings, offering this as another reason for their decision to withdraw.

"Lawyers for the police and the provincial government are trying to erode proposed witness protections for these women so that, for example, information they give on the stand wouldn't be used against them in a criminal prosecution at a later date," says Eby. "The fact that those basic protections aren't in place in order to bring marginalize populations to the table shows exactly why these women need lawyers. We can't suggest that women participate in a process like that we won't participate in a process like that."

Despite the slew of recent withdrawals from the hearings, Art Vertlieb Q.C., Commission Counsel, released a written statement claiming that "[t]he Commission is confident that the evidence it will hear from a range of witnesses and cross-examination by counsel for the participants will address the requirements of the mandate."

The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry was established last fall to investigate the conduct and responsiveness of police and prosecutors in the case of convicted serial killer Robert Pickton.

The official hearings are due to begin next Tuesday.

Ben Christopher reports for The Tyee.

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