ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Justice: Crime and Acquittal

Crime and Acquittal The one year sentence imposed for

JUSTICE

Crime and Acquittal

T
he one year sentence imposed for “contempt” by the Supreme Court on Zahira Shaikh, witness in the Best Bakery trial case, for her repeated retractions before various courts, has highlighted once again the “crucial” role of the witness, and, by and large, the vexatious turns that investigations in various cases have taken, on account of witness “hostility”. In fact, that conviction rates in criminal trials have declined over the last 45 years, from 60 per cent to as little as 22 per cent, has been blamed largely on witnesses proving unreliable, the ease with which retractions from police recorded statements have been made as well as poor capabilities of the prosecutors. That the criminal procedure code (CrPC) needs to be urgently amended has been evinced for a while, yet it took an intervention on the part of the UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi to suggest precisely this – an amendment to section 164 of the CrPC to make mandatory the recording of witness’ statements before a magistrate.

That the Congress has shown alacrity at this present juncture is because political parties have been exercised by the manner in which all nine accused in the 1999 Jessica Lal murder case were recently acquitted by the Delhi sessions court. The ostensible reason why the two main accused, scions of influential political families, were let off was the fact that key witnesses retracted their original statements. The outcry and protests that followed over the acquittal were unusual. Like the murder itself, that took place in the public gaze, in one of Delhi’s exclusive (albeit unlicensed) hang-outs, the protests and the methods adopted too have been “public”, i e, those that lent themselves wide and easy television “coverage”. Thus, the soliciting of support via the “sms” mode for a reopening of the case, petitions to the president, candlelight vigils and the “silent, sympathy” march at the India Gate, one of the nation’s more public landmarks.

There can be no doubt that the acquittal amounted to a subversion of justice. Like the Jessica Lal case, there have been other “high-profile” cases in the capital where the accused have been similarly acquitted, as also almost happened in the Best Bakery case before the Supreme Court intervened. While the witness’ role has acquired an overweening importance in the investigative process, other loopholes also need to be plugged to ensure a successful investigation. It can only be hoped that for all the attention now centring on the Jessica Lal case, the collusion it hints at and which seems to have existed between investigating officers and certain influential families, the shoddy investigative methods followed as well as the matter of witness recalcitrance, will set in motion the much-needed amendments that investigative and the judicial processes are urgently in need of.

It is common knowledge that the lower judiciary has been in need of revamp for some time. Not only is it inadequately staffed (as many as one-sixth of total sanctioned judges’ posts lie vacant in different courts), the poor conviction rate is also partly blamed on the susceptibility of certain sections in the lower judiciary to graft. The need to assure witness protection has also now taken on an even greater urgency. Not only must the witness be assured some measure of security and assurance, “incentives” for a witness to turn hostile must be countered. A first step to assure some modicum of protection to witnesses implies not only an amendment of the CrPC, but cases need to be wound up within a specific time frame so that witnesses are not beleaguered over the years. A more “active, involved” judiciary to help efficaciously resolve judicial proceedings and, in turn, ensure an effective monitoring of witness’ statements in court, has also been suggested. So far, judges have been unwilling to level “perjury” charges chiefly because it places the onus on the courts and is timeconsuming. A recent initiative of the Himachal Pradesh high court seeking to inculcate judicial awareness in the public, especially in the rural areas, needs to be replicated on a nationwide scale.

In the Jessica Lal case, the Delhi police recently filed a new FIR against unknown persons, alleging “destruction of evidence, fabrication of records, shielding of offenders and criminal conspiracy”. Perhaps it was perhaps compelled to do so in the wake of the very public protests against the acquittal. What the outcry reveals is that “public spaces” for protest – whether television studios or the India Gate – can be accessed by some people, not all. For those away from the centre, or in the nation’s periphery, the subversion of justice can mean its absence altogether. This could perhaps explain the continued existence of caste panchayats in several north Indian villages or why in July 2004, a mob of women in a Nagpur city court, took the law in their own hands and lynched their long-time tormentor, Akku Yadav, to death. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly March 11, 2006

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