Protecting Witnesses Is Not EasyThe witness protection programme is finally in place in India. Apart from the shortage of judges and other infrastructure, the Indian criminal justice system is hampered by lack of witness protection laws or guidelines. As a result of this prosecution witnesses turn hostile due to either being threatened or influenced. This in turn results in very low rate of convictions, which is visible more in rape and child-related cases or in cases where influential persons are involved.
By Sunil Garodia
The immediate trigger for bringing in a witness protection system was the Asaram case in which many prosecution witnesses complained of being threatened by his cronies and some were even murdered. But if a survey is carried out it will be seen that witnesses turn hostile mostly in cases where politicians or goons supported by them are accused. In these cases, the police are also involved as either the party that threatens the witness or brokers a deal with them.
Hence, any witness protection programme without concurrent judicial and police reforms, along with improvement in court infrastructure will not succeed. Although the programme as put in place is quite comprehensive and has all the necessary inputs, including changing identities and providing safe houses to round the clock police protection, it is not going to make much of an impact in the absence of an impartial investigating and law-enforcing agency.
The second, and more important, factor is the time taken to decide a case. The courts have to be strict in scheduling examination of witnesses as frequent reappearances in court take a toll on witnesses who suffer mentally and financially. Taking advantage of this, defence lawyers often raise petty points of law to call for re-examining witnesses. The courts have to make it a point to refuse cross examinations unless absolutely necessary and even if so, schedule it in a manner convenient to the witness.
Then again, if cases drag on for years, witnesses either lose interest or fading memory lays them open to being decimated by defence lawyers. Given the number of pending cases and a shortage of judges, if it is not possible to dispose of cases early, then the courts should at least ensure that a particular witness is examined at a stretch and spared repeated visits. He or she must be called for cross-examination if it is absolutely necessary. As technology improves, the courts can even provide for testimony or cross-examination over video conferencing and/or mobile apps if petty points of law are involved.
There is no doubt that protection of witnesses absolutely necessary for them to give a free and fair testimony. A witness will feel secure if he is protected. But this can only come about if those who protect them are also unbiased. If witnesses fear the police more than the goons of the opposite party, the purpose of having them protected by the police will not be served. Hence, it is mandatory to bring in police reforms to have professional police forces in the country who work efficiently under a transparent system with accountability.