The Delhi high court on Wednesday ordered that model-turned-actor Shayan Munshi and ballistics expert Prem Sagar Manocha, witnesses in the Jessica Lall murder case who turned hostile, be tried for perjury under Section 340 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The court observed that Munshi's backtracking had prima facie amounted to 'helping the accused'. If found guilty the duo could face up to seven years in prison. The court's observation is important as it may act as a deterrent to witnesses in future cases.
There are previous instances where witnesses have backtracked. In 1999, Sanjeev Nanda driving his luxury car hit and killed six people. Later in court the sole survivor turned hostile stating that it could have been a truck that hit him and the other six. In the Best Bakery case, Zahira Sheikh, who was a key witness to the attack that killed 14 Muslims, repeatedly changed her statements prompting the courts to jail her for a period of 15 months for perjury.
Another important aspect is the Delhi high court asking the Delhi government to come up with a 'witness protection policy' within 10 weeks. Such a policy is important because trials which get prolonged often find witnesses, either through threats or inducements, changing their stance in court. This is not the first time the government has been asked by the judiciary to bring in an effective witness protection policy. In 2003, in the wake of the Nitish Katara case, the Delhi high court had issued guidelines for a witness protection scheme. In 2012 the Bombay high court, while passing a judgment on the Best Bakery case, pushed for an effective witness protection programme. While the law ministry has expressed its willingness to incorporate a witness protection mechanism into the criminal justice system, nothing much has been done in this direction. There is no easy way out of this.
Trials must be conducted within a short time period so that those who are witness to crimes do not change their minds or have their minds changed due to inducements or threats. This would be one major step in the right direction for our criminal justice system.