NATIONAL

Consultation paper on witness protection

NEW DELHI, AUG. 21. Expressing serious concern over the acquittals of the accused in a number of criminal cases owing to the phenomenon of witnesses turning hostile, the Law Commission has suggested the enactment of a comprehensive legislation for the protection of witnesses and to ensure that their evidence collected at the stage of investigation is not allowed to be destroyed later.

In a consultation paper on witness protection released on August 19 on its website, the Commission says special procedures are to be introduced into the criminal law to balance the need for anonymity for witnesses, on the one hand, and the rights of the accused, on the other. The Evidence Act requires to be looked into afresh to provide for the protection of a witness.

The Commission's suggestion assumes significance in the context of the Supreme Court taking up the issue in the Gujarat riot cases, particularly in the Best Bakery case in which all the 21 accused were acquitted by the trial court as witnesses either turned hostile or were threatened by the accused. The court has called for the Centre's response on witness protection.

According to the consultation paper, there are two broad aspects to the need for witness protection. The first is to ensure that the evidence of witnesses collected at the stage of investigation is not allowed to be destroyed by witnesses resiling from their statements while deposing on oath in court.

This phenomenon of witnesses turning "hostile" on account of the failure to "protect" their evidence is a serious problem. This entails special procedures to be introduced into the criminal law to balance the need for anonymity of witnesses, on the one hand, and the rights of the accused, on the other, for an open public trial with a right of cross-examination of the witnesses, after knowing all details about witnesses.

Witness vulnerability

The other aspect is the physical and mental vulnerability of the witness and taking care of his or her welfare in various respects which call for the physical protection of the witness at all stages of the criminal justice process till the conclusion of the case, by the introduction of witness protection programmes.

While the first aspect of protecting the evidence of witnesses from the danger of their turning "hostile" has received limited attention at the hands of Parliament in some special statutes dealing with terrorism, there is an urgent need for a comprehensive legislative scheme dealing with the physical protection of the witness as well.

Further, both aspects of anonymity and witness protection will have to be ensured in all criminal cases involving grave crimes not limited to terrorist crimes.

The Law Commission has taken up the subject suo motu on account of the Supreme Court's observations in certain important cases and also because of the immediate importance of the subject.

The Commission prepared the Consultation Paper to invite responses from all sections of society. After receiving the responses till November 30, it will make its final recommendations possibly along with a draft Bill.