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Witness protection can curb intimidation by people like Shahabuddin

editorials Updated: Nov 30, 2016 01:41 IST
Mohammad Shahabuddin

Media persons at the Supreme Court of India, New Delhi, India. (File Photo)(PTI)

The course of justice will be subverted if RJD leader Mohammad Shahabuddin remains in the Siwan jail according to the CBI, which wants him shifted to Tihar jail. The Supreme Court is likely to take a call today on whether or not this will be done. Shahabuddin, who faces trial in 45 criminal cases, is considered so powerful that there is real fear that witnesses will be unwilling to testify against him or will be intimidated into silence. He has a notorious squad of supporters who don’t hesitate to threaten witnesses and thereby influence cases against him. Shahabuddin’s writ has run in Siwan even during the time he has been in jail.

Read | ‘Will teach him a lesson’: Shahabuddin back in jail with warning for Nitish

This case, as many others, shows the need for a proper programme to protect witnesses. The long delays between filing cases and them coming to trial leaves the powerful much room to threaten and intimidate witnesses. In fact, on several occasions, witnesses have either been attacked or even killed. The apex court has called for such a programme as it feels that without this, public confidence in the criminal justice system will be shaken. There have often been cases of witnesses turning hostile for no ostensible reason. Though there are perjury laws under which a witness found to be lying during judicial proceedings can get a jail term up to seven years, few people are actually prosecuted under these. Apart from intimidation, witnesses also have been found to change their testimony due to inducements. This was thought to be why some witnesses in the infamous BMW case, who saw the killer car mow down people, later changed their mind and said that the offending vehicle was a speeding truck.

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Ganglords and powerful politicians have inspired such fear even among jail officials and the police that imprisonment in no way curtails their businesses or influence. This really underscores the need to shorten the length of judicial proceedings. When cases drag on for years, the possibilities of tampering with both evidence and witness testimonies are much higher, especially in the case of someone with the power and reach of Shahabuddin.

Read | Shahabuddin: The Bahubali behind bars

Witnesses need both police protection and if necessary relocation. One of the reasons why Shahabuddin inspires such terror even while behind bars is the fact that he has political support which serves to intimidate jail officials and the police. The fact that the CBI recommended that he be shifted suggests that it is of the opinion that the system in Bihar is compromised. A witness protection programme and speedier trials will play a crucial role in making the criminal justice system more effective and less susceptible to being undermined.