Shayan Munshi and other witnesses in the Jessica Lall murder case have a lot of answering to do. Besides the perjury charges against them, the Delhi Police have now accused them of lying again in claiming that it was the police that had changed their initial statements with the intent of procuring a conviction for Manu Sharma. Just what conclusion the court will arrive at after weighing the statements of all the parties concerned will surely impact the course of the justice delivery mechanism, but undoubtedly the proceedings by itself hold tremendous significance. The Indian Penal Code clearly suggests an intolerance for false statements made during the course of a trial, substantiated by the prescription of a sentence of even seven years for anyone convicted of the same. Yet, this law is rarely put to use. The perjury charges initiated against witnesses in a high-profile case like that of Jessica Lall will hopefully act as a precedent that will not be lost.
It is a fact that criminal trials in India suffer largely on account of witnesses retracting statements made to the police in the early stages of investigations. Money, power and threats have been seen too often to influence important witnesses, even to the extent of them fabricating evidence. As in the Zaheera Sheikh case, where she received a year’s imprisonment for retracting her statements in the Best Bakery case no less than two times, they are sometimes both victims and offenders. Since witnesses offer vital evidence based on which judicial decisions are taken, it is important that courts immediately put a halt to what is but a complete mockery of judicial proceedings. For this, they will need to initiate deterrent action and begin to strictly enforce laws related to perjury and false evidence. A Zaheera Sheikh convicted or a Shayan Munshi being charged will begin to count for something only if such action is taken more regularly.
Hostile witnesses usually claim that their initial statements were made to the police under duress. While this could be true in some circumstances, it is vital that witnesses’ statements in criminal cases be recorded before a magistrate as soon as possible. While this would then be admissible as evidence during a trial, it would also prevent witnesses from retracting their statements at a later stage. A witness is the eye of the crime, and allowing him or her to get away with giving false testimony is as bad as knowingly letting a criminal walk free.