“I swear in the name of god that what I say is the truth and nothing but the truth”. This is the oath taken by many as they embark on the path of obligation, assistance and duty as a witness in the Indian justice system. But how many of them can or will conform to the earnest vow he/she takes?
Witnesses are seen by many as the eyes and ears of justice. Most of the prosecution’s cases are built on their attestation. They pave way for the accused to be penalised and fairness to be meted out to the victim. But often the justice to these witnesses is gravely compromised. The twin monsters of money and muscle in many cases, especially in those involving influential sections of the society, lead to the witnesses turning hostile and retracting their early statements. The BMW case where there were constant flip flops by the lead witness, the Jessica Lal case where 32 of the prosecution’s witnesses recanted or the Best bakery case where the witnesses alleged that they were misguided by a social activist, are some of the prime examples of situations where they have changed sides.
The lamentable situation in Indian judicial system is that it does not have a proper witness protection law. In fact they are treated shamefully, tossed around mercilessly and harassed by the law abiding officials, that the ordinary citizens are hesitant to be witnesses. There are cases where adjournment after adjournment are done either to tire the witness out or to buy enough time to change their standpoint. The snail-paced movement of the legal processes doesn’t help either. The witnesses in most of the high profile cases are discouraged, intimidated or coerced by the accused or defence. Some of them turn adverse. Some of them vanish. Some of them are eliminated. Hostile witness leads to a mockery of the judicial system and gross miscarriage of justice.
The Supreme Court has already expressed alarm at the large number of witnesses turning hostile. India should take a leaf out of the laws of its Western counterparts. Many countries like UK, US and Australia have comprehensive witness protection programs. New laws to protect the witnesses and the sanctity of their testaments are the need of the hour which may vary from giving them a new identity/relocation in cases of organized crimes to physical bodyguards for protection in others. The bill should assure the dignity of the witnesses and free them from any form of threats or abuses so that he/she can participate in the procedures with least apprehension. Funds should be allocated by the central and state government for the same. Corruption and political pressures undermining the effectiveness of such programs have to be addressed too. Stringent laws should be implemented to effectively deal with perjury.
All this cannot happen in a day or two. But it’s beyond time that at least a first step is taken in the right direction. The central and the state governments along with the law ministry and judiciary should put forth a mechanism to aid the free and fearless functioning of legal channels and exudation of justice. The victims have been wronged once by the society. Let them not be wronged again by the system.
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