In a crackdown against the menace of witnesses turning hostile, the Delhi High Court on Wednesday initiated proceedings to prosecute 32 witnesses in the Jessica Lall murder case who had retracted from their statements given to the police.
The witnesses include model-turned-actor Shayan Munshi and businessman Andaleeb Sehgal, who is already facing a probe in the Iraqi oil-for-food scam.
The Bench, which convicted main accused Manu Sharma and two others by taking the unprecedented step of salvaging incriminating portions from the testimonies of even hostile witnesses, said: "Witnesses turning hostile appears to be the order of the day. The courts must put an end to this kind of attitude in order to thwart the course of justice."
The list also included Manoj Kumar and Shiv Dass, waiter and electrician of the Tamarind Court restaurant, and ballistic expert PS Manocha, who had given a report favouring the accused for the murder that happened in the intervening night of April 29-30, 1999.
The court order is bound to send shivers down the spines of many witnesses who have turned hostile in the recent past. The Supreme Court had, in March this year, sentenced Zaheera Shaikh for turning hostile in the Best Bakery case.
The order from the Delhi High Court Bench also coincides with a series of amendments brought in the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) to include witness protection.
As per the amendments, any witness who makes a statement before a magistrate can retract only at the risk of inviting perjury charges. Recording of statement of the witnesses before a magistrate at the earliest opportunity was also recommended to deny the rich and mighty accused a chance to threaten witnesses.
All the 32 witnesses have been asked to personally appear in the court on February 1. All of them face perjury charges for which the maximum sentence is seven years.
The court took suo motu cognisance of the "sad state of affairs" after going through the documents of the proceedings in the court of Additional Sessions Judge SL Bhayana who had acquitted all the accused.
The show cause notice asked the hostile witnesses as to "why action could not be taken against them under Section 340 of the CrPC for interfering with the administration of justice."
The High Court also took strong note of the trial court not invoking the provision for prosecuting hostile witnesses.
The Bench said in the judgment that there was clear indication that witnesses like Shayan Munshi, Shiv Dass, Manoj Kumar and Manocha were won over by the rich and powerful accused Manu Sharma.
Delhi Police Commissioner KK Paul has welcomed the step. "Recourse to Section 340 of CrPC and issuing a show cause notice to hostile witnesses is a very positive development and will have long term impact on the system," he said.