Landmark order for protection of witnesses

Published : December 06, 2018 12:26 IST

The Supreme Court bench of Justice A.K. Sikri and Justice Ashok Bhushan, on Wednesday, directed the setting up of vulnerable witness deposition complexes in all district courts across the country in line with the Witness Protection Scheme (WPS) framed by the Centre. Giving its imprimatur to the scheme in its judgment in Mahendra Chawla vs Union of India, the bench said the scheme would hold the field until there was appropriate legislation to replace it.

The apex court made this extraordinary intervention on a petition by four witnesses who were threatened for deposing against the godman Asaram Babu and his son Narayana Sai, both of whom are facing trial for the rape of women devotees. Around 10 persons who were witnesses against the duo have been attacked so far, and of them three died of injuries they suffered in the attacks.

According to the WPS, the witness protection measures shall be proportionate to the threat and shall be for a specific duration not exceeding three months at a time.

They may include:

(a) Ensuring that witness and accused do not come face to face during investigation or trial;

(b) monitoring of mail and telephone calls;

(c) arrangement with the telephone company to change the witness’s telephone number or assign him or her an unlisted telephone number;

(d) installation of security devices, such as security doors, CCTV, alarms, fencing, etc., in the witness’s home;

(e) concealment of identity of the witness by referring to him/her with the changed name or alphabet; (f) Emergency contact persons for the witness; (g) Close protection, regular patrolling around the witness’s house;

(h) temporary change of residence to a relative’s house or a nearby town;

(i) escort to and from the court and provision of government vehicle or a State-funded conveyance on the date of hearing;

(j) holding of in-camera trials;

(k) allowing a support person to remain present during recording of statement and deposition;

(l) usage of specially designed vulnerable witness court rooms which have special arrangements like live video links, one way mirrors and screens apart from separate passages for witnesses and accused, with option to modify the image of face of the witness and to modify the audio feed of the witness’ voice so that he/she is not identifiable;

(m) ensuring expeditious recording of deposition during trial on a day-to-day basis without adjournments; and

(n) awarding periodical financial aids/grants to the witness from time to time from the Witness Protection Fund for the purpose of relocation, sustenance or starting a new vocation/profession, if desired;

Once an order for the protection of the identity of a witness is passed by the competent authority, it shall be the responsibility of the Witness Protection Cell to ensure that the identity of such witness/his or her family members, including name/parentage/occupation/address/digital footprints, are fully protected. As long as identity of any witness is protected under an order of the competent authority, the Witness Protection Cell shall provide details of persons who can be contacted by the witness in case of emergency, the bench held.

One of the main reasons for establishing the vulnerable witness deposition complexes was the large percentage of acquittals in criminal cases because of witnesses turning hostile and giving false testimonies, mostly owing to lack of protection for them and their families, especially in the case of women and children.

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