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The witness regime

india Updated: Dec 22, 2006 00:26 IST
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A number of recent high-profile cases have shown us the importance of witness statements in bringing the guilty to book. Unfortunately, this realisation has mainly come about on account of the number of witnesses in these cases who turned hostile. It has become something of a public habit to demonise hostile witnesses for displaying a lack of conscience. But, perhaps, a more constructive agenda would be to build greater confidence in the minds of witnesses and providing them with enough reasons to make them not end up ruing their decision to assist the court. At the same time, there must be no doubt in their minds about retribution if they do turn hostile.

Several suggestions have already been made to the Union government, by both the Malimath Committee in its report on reforming the criminal justice system and the Law Commission in its 198th report, on ensuring the reliability of witnesses. Keeping in mind the dangers posed to witnesses during deposition in some criminal cases, it is of primary importance to create a witness protection programme. Also, in certain circumstances, the anonymity of witnesses who might face a threat to their lives — or the lives of their family and friends — must be ensured. Witnesses, in general, have no stake in the cases concerned, being neither the party of the accused nor of the victim. They perform an important public duty despite the risks involved and the valuable time consumed in doing so. The State must then assume the responsibility for their protection at all stages of the criminal justice process. A moral dilemma must arise in condemning those witnesses who seek merely to protect themselves and the people close to them.

That said, the use of power and pelf to influence witnesses into changing their testimonies is hardly uncommon. Since statements made before the police are not admissible in a trial court, it must be ensured, at least in cases where the stakes are high, that these statements are recorded in the presence of a magistrate at the earliest. Besides saving witnesses the trouble of appearing before the court time and again — and speeding up a slothful legal process — it would also prevent them from making a screeching turnaround at a crucial stage. It is, of course, an unpardonable offence when perjury leads to a wrongly accused person being convicted or to a criminal walking out of the court free. Consistent action by the courts to punish both hostile witnesses and those who influence them is necessary to create the right atmosphere for truth to prevail.