To prevent criminal cases from collapsing with witnesses turning hostile under duress, the Supreme Court on Wednesday put in place the long-awaited witness protection scheme.
A bench comprising Justice A. K. Sikri and Justice S Abdul Nazeer in their judgement said, "it shall be the law under Article 141/142 of the Constitution until the enactment of suitable parliamentary and/or State legislation on the subject".
What does the witness protection scheme involve? It deals with concealing the identity of the witness faced with threats, prohibits publication or revealing, in any manner, the identity of a witness during the investigation, trial or post-trial stage.
Just Skiri describes the position of witnesses as "pathetic", because of the treatment meted out to them and the tendency of reluctance in coming forward and making a statement during the trial.
The Witness Protection Scheme 2018 was framed by the Central government based on the inputs received from 18 States/Union Territories, 5 States Legal Services Authorities and open sources including civil society, three High Courts and police personnel, as well.
Essential features of the scheme include identifying categories of threat perceptions, preparation of a "Threat Analysis Report" by the head of the police and determining types of protection measures which need to be taken.
The witnesses can file an application for seeking protection order before the competent authority of the concerned district where the offence is committed. The competent authority will be chaired by Districts and Sessions Judge, with the head of the police in the district as a member, head of the prosecution as member secretary.
These measures include protection of identity, change of identity, relocation of a witness, witnesses to be appraised of the scheme, confidentiality and preservation of records, recovery of expenses etc.
What does the judgement say?
"One of the main reasons for witnesses to turn hostile is that they are not accorded appropriate protection by the State. It is a harsh reality, particularly, in those cases where the accused persons/criminals are tried for heinous offences, or where the accused persons are influential persons or in a dominating position," the judgement said
The SC stated in the judgement that it is a benevolent and beneficial scheme aimed at strengthening the criminal justice system of the nation. It will ensure access to justice and advance the cause of justice too.
The judgement says "This Court has given its imprimatur to the Scheme prepared by respondent No.1 which is approved hereby. It comes into effect forthwith."
The judgement also says that in all the district courts of India, vulnerable witness deposition complexes shall be set up by the States and Union Territories, a provision which should be achieved by the end of 2019. The Central government should help the states in this endeavour financially or otherwise.
The hearing on the need for the witness protection scheme is rooted in a petition by Mahender Chawla who miraculously survived a murder attempt for daring to testify against so-called godman, Asaram Bapu, and his son Narayan Sai in cases of rape of a child and two sisters.