The rise in the number of acquittals in criminal cases has stemmed from the absence of a law to protect witnesses, the Supreme Court has said in a judgment delivered recently.
A bench comprising justice Ranjana Prakash Desai and justice Madan B Lokur expressed concern at witnesses turning hostile frequently and observed: “Unless the witnesses are protected, the rise in unmerited acquittals cannot be checked. It is unfortunate that this important issue has not received necessary attention.”
The court expressed anxiety while upholding a Karnataka high court order convicting a man who had burnt his wife to death by pouring kerosene on her. The incident took place in October 1991, four years after the couple’s marriage. A trial court had acquitted the man after his in-laws defended him.
The court was shocked to learn that the victim’s parents had turned hostile during the trial. “It is sad that even the parents did not stand by their daughter. We do not understand how a woman, particularly a mother, turned her back on the daughter. Possibly these witnesses were bought over by the appellant,” the court said.
The court also said there was a need to ascertain why witnesses were “frequently” turning hostile. The reason could be greed (inducement) or lack of compassion, it said. But if they were threatened by the accused and forced to depose in his favour, it was a sad reflection on the system that did not protect witnesses, the judgment noted.
This is not the first time that a court has spoken about gaps in the criminal justice system. There is no scheme, either of the central government or any state, on witness protection despite judicial orders, and the Law Commission and Malimath committee recommending its requirement.
Recently the Delhi high court had laid down binding directions on witness protection.