The disappearance of November 26, 2008, terror attack witness Nuruddin Shaikh last week triggered panic in the rank and file of Mumbai police.
The prosecution anticipated that their case against two alleged local facilitators of the 26/11 attackers would not stand in the absence of the key witness.
Though Shaikh showed up late in the evening much to the respite of the police, the incident hastened a debate over the issue of extending state protection to invaluable witnesses in terror and gangland-related criminal cases.
It’s not that the police did not think about protecting witnesses before Shaikh’s disappearance. Rather, a witness protection scheme conceived and prepared by then additional commissioner of police (crime) Rakesh Maria [presently Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime)] six years ago following the Gateway of India blast in 2003, is yet to see the light of day.
“It’s extremely important to protect key witnesses in grave criminal cases,” said Maria.
Public Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam said witness protection is the need of the hour. Stressing the need for legal provisions, Nikam added that witnesses don’t like to depose against hardened criminals unless protected.
He said presently there is no legal provision in India for protecting witnesses, although the Law Commission had highlighted the issue right from its 14th report published in 1958.
The Supreme Court, too, had stressed the need for protecting witnesses in several cases.
However, things haven’t moved an inch in this regard. “The concept of protecting witnesses is at infant stage in our country,” said high court lawyer Rahul Thakur.
“In the US and the UK, witnesses are rehabilitated after giving them new identities if threat perceptions require so,” Thakur said.