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

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Security for Witnesses

What makes a witness protection programme effective?

The Supreme Court recently observed that in cases involving the powerful and the rich, the common experience is that witnesses turn hostile due to pressure and fear and that there is a “tremendous need for witness protection in our country”. The apex court was hearing an 11-year-old case of a girl crushed to death by a politician’s son who drove over her at a women’s college in Chhattisgarh, enraged by protests over his h ooliganism. There were many witnesses to the incident, including the victim’s friends, but all of them turned hostile in the trial court.

As in the murder of Jessica Lal (when the victim was shot in a crowded bar), the BMW killings (when six persons were mowed down by Sanjeev Nanda’s speeding car) and many others, it is a common experience that those witnesses who initially file the p olice complaint turn hostile before the court. The prosecution, in most cases, simply fizzles out due to witness intimidation. This is not the first time, however, that the need for a witness protection programme has been felt. The 14th report (1958) of the Law Commission of India had recommended provision of proper facilities to witnesses attending court, while the 154th report (1996) spoke of creating confidence in the witnesses that they would be protected from the “wrath” of the accused. The 172nd report (2000) of the Law Commission suggested drastic changes in the way the testimony of a minor is to be recorded in child sexual abuse cases. Apart from this, in 2003, in the case of the National Human Rights Commission vs State of Gujarat, the Supreme Court noted that there is neither a law nor even a scheme by the union or any state government to protect witnesses. And in the following year, while hearing the Best Bakery case, it said that a witness protection programme was imperative. At least five high courts have expressed the need for such a programme. But other than the Delhi High Court, which has given broad and general guidelines, none of the courts have listed any concrete steps for such a mechanism.

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