India is replete with instances where influential accused have managed to delay the course of justice, if not obstruct it completely—in the Jessica Lal case, 80 witnesses had turned hostile. Key to this has been witnesses who were pressured or bribed into dropping out or turning hostile during the trial. There are, of course, some provisions in the law to check against witnesses turning hostile—Section 193 of the Indian Penal Code prescribes punitive provisions for witnesses bearing false evidence—imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years and fine.
But, prosecuting hostile witnesses seems like double jeopardy when the reason they have turned hostile is because of pressure and threats from influential parties in a case. Thus, there had been a longstanding need for a witness protection formula.The Law Commission, in 2006, had provided detailed recommendations for “administrative or legislative action”; for witness protection. The government’s draft witness protection scheme, therefore, is a welcome step. The Centre has invited suggestions from the state governments and will notify it after the inputs have been received.
The scheme, as per the Centre’s statement in Supreme Court, is designed to check against investigation, prosecution and trial getting prejudiced, thanks to witnesses being intimidated. The protection provided will be as per the level of threat perceived. Police escort and guards will be provided to a witness being threatened, and if need be, the person will be shifted to a safe house. The authorities will also monitor e-mails, calls and communication in any other form to the witness. The scheme also provides for expedited, in-camera deposition and concealment of identities of vulnerable witnesses. The scheme is to be funded jointly by the Union and state governments. A sturdy witness protection plan will likely be an effective check against cases dragging on for years, clogging the courts and eroding severely the quality of justice.