Witness protection: onus on State

An effective witness protection scheme should be a part of the criminal justice system but it has hardly received any attention in India. PTI

An effective witness protection scheme should be a part of the criminal justice system but it has hardly received any attention in India. A beginning may have been made with the Supreme Court approving a draft witness protection scheme presented by the government and directing the central and state governments to implement it “in letter and spirit’’. It has made it clear that it should be enforced immediately and the supporting legislation can be enacted later. The need for such a system has been underlined by past judgements, Law Commission reports and many expert committees. One major reason for the low conviction rate in criminal cases is the high incidence of witnesses turning hostile. Many prosecution witnesses deny their earlier statements because of inducements, pressure or threats from the accused persons or those associated with them. Cases collapse when witnesses turn hostile, and the credibility of the justice system suffers as a result. 

It is the responsibility of the State, which conducts the prosecution, to ensure that witnesses are protected and can freely depose before the courts. It is also for the government to see to it that the witnesses reach the court and attend the proceedings. Instead the entire responsibility rests on the witnesses now. This will hopefully change. The scheme classifies witnesses into three categories on the basis of their threat perception. In the first category are witnesses and their family members who face threats to their lives. The witnesses whose safety, property and reputation are threatened are grouped under the second category. In the third category are witnesses who face intimidation or harassment. A competent authority will assess the threat and decide on the kind of protection to be given to the witnesses. They may need protection before and after the trial and may need to be put up in safe houses, and their communications may have to be monitored. In some cases, witnesses may even need to be given new identities.  

All this will present a serious challenge to the government and the police. State governments will have to financially support the scheme. The police will need additional personnel to meet the requirements of protection. The system will have to be implemented fairly and efficiently without compromising the safety of the witnesses. As it was observed in the draft note, witnesses are the eyes and ears of the court. The court also said that the right of the witness to testify without fear or pressure in the court is a part of the right to life under Article 21. The court has taken a major step in the interest of justice and it should be implemented well. 

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