Despite repeated recommendation, we do not have a witness protection law yet
Rupali Mehra | May 8, 2015
At ten past eleven as justice DW Deshpande read out the verdict this Wednesday, one man who needed to be in court to hear justice being delivered, was not. Nor was he present at the high court today when the sentence pronounced by the lower court was suspended. This witness will never know the verdict of a case he was an intrinsic part of. After all, he is no more.
On October 4, 2007 constable Ravindra Patil died an emaciated, dejected, broken man. He succumbed to the pulls and pressures of being the star witness in one of the most high profile trials of our times: The Salman Khan hit-and-run case.
READ: Salman Khan sentenced to five years in jail in 2002 hit-and-run case
Just five years prior, he was the most crucial cog in the wheels of this investigation. The night an inebriated Salman ran his Land Cruiser over five pavement dwellers sleeping outside Bandra's American Bakery, it was constable Patil who informed the police. That night a homeless man named Nurullah Mehboob Sharif died on the spot, while four others were seriously injured. Patil, then Salman's police bodyguard, was in the car along with the actor and saw what exactly happened.
Over the next few months of trial, Patil stood by his statement that it was Salman behind the wheels, despite knowing who and what he was up against. But slowly the pressure built up and this witnessed cracked under it. Constable Patil stayed away from the hearings, went absconding and even had an arrest warrant against him for failing to take to the witness box. He was sacked from the police department after he went missing. Finally he took to begging in the streets of Mumbai, the same streets he once protected. The last anyone saw of him was at the general ward of the Sewri TB municipal hospital in central Mumbai.
Constable Patil's tragic end is the ugly reality of what can happen to a witness, especially in high-profile cases.
The Salman hit-and-run case typifies trials under our judicial system where most cases stretch to a decade or more, putting extreme pressure on prosecution and witnesses. More often than not witnesses turn hostile or are intimidated to do so. Their life is on pause mode till the trial ends, which could even stretch a lifetime. Often witnesses disappear, by their own free will or by force. Yet we don't have a law to protect these witnesses, who form the most crucial piece of evidence in trials and whose testimony is relied upon heavily in the Indian judicial system.
Since 1958, when the law commission first advocated the need for witness protection, there have been several commissioned reports, but little action on them. Courts too have chided government after government for failing to take active interest in pushing through a witness protection law.
In 2003 the supreme court, hearing the Best Bakery case, explicitly stated, "no law has yet been enacted, not even a scheme has been framed by the union of India or by the state government for giving protection to the witnesses."
In 2006 the law commission, under justice M Jagannadha Rao, submitted the ‘198th Report on Witness Identity Protection and Witness Protection’ to the then law minister, HR Bharadwaj. The comprehensive report, while citing several case studies and quoting international protection laws, called for an “urgent need for a legislation” on witness protection. On page 232 of the 507-page report, it is stated, “The impunity with which persons facing charges of mass murders, rape and gruesome killings are able to frustrate the justice process through the tactics of intimidation, threats and even elimination of witnesses has given cause for grave concern.”
A parliamentary standing committee was eventually formed to review the proposal and seek recommendations of state governments. But nine years have passed and a bill is yet to be tabled in parliament.
The closest India has come to protecting witnesses are the now defunct anti-terror laws, Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) and Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). Under Section 195A of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2005, threatening or inducing any person to give false evidence is punishable by law. Yet there is no provision for protecting and rehabilitating a witness, like in several other thriving democracies.
A case in point is the US. Their Federal Witness Protection Program (WITSEC), operated by the US Marshal Service, provides a witness housing, medical facilities, job assistance and an option of identity change. It has proved to very successful, ensuring convictions in cases related to murders, narcotics, fraud and mafia, including that of the dreaded Lucchese and Colombo crime families of New York City. Between 1971 and 2011 more than 8,300 witnesses took part in the programme.
In Ireland a witness is protected in serious criminal cases and is offered a new identity in the country or abroad, armed police protection and even a new job. Australia has one of the most comprehensive and sound witness protection programmes in the world. A person does not have to be a witness in a court of law to qualify for witness protection. Anyone who has put oneself and one’s families or associates in danger by helping a law enforcement agency can be eligible for protection.
The fact that India, home to one-sixth of the world population, does not have a witness protection law is staring us in the face, yet we choose to ignore it.
Twelve years ago an honest National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) engineer Satyendra Dubey was murdered. He had witnessed and sought to expose large-scale corruption in the Golden Quadrilateral project, but paid with his life. It led to massive public outcry and the supreme court had to press the government to formulate a legislation to ensure the safety of whistleblowers. The legislation took a decade, but finally in on May 9, 2014, the Whistleblowers Protection Act got the president’s nod.
Like a whistleblower, a witness is an equally crucial asset in an investigator's armour. Protection of a witness will result in timely deposition and can go a long way in ensuring a free, fair and speedy trial. Unfortunately witnesses are not treated with the care that they should. And all we hear time and again is news of witnesses falling silent. The most recent is the murder of two key witnesses in the rape trial of the self-styled godman Asaram Bapu. Yet, the other witnesses are forced to live in constant fear.
Being a witness is no easy task. It is emotionally draining. You are constantly under scrutiny from media and lawyers, questioned and cross-questioned. Even a slight deviation from your original statement can label you a liar and a turncoat. The longer the case, the greater the chances of the witness tipping over. The least a state can do is ensure the witness is protected physically, psychologically and economically.
Otherwise, what happened to constable Ravindra Patil, who was reduced to a shadow of himself and finally succumbed, will repeat itself again and again.
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