Kathua rape case: Plea by witnesses in SC alleging police harassment underlines need for witness protection law

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear a plea by three witnesses in the Kathua rape case who have alleged harassment by state police. The witnesses initially gave their testimony, but before a magistrate said they were coerced into giving their statement by the police. Now, the police wants them to rerecord their statements.

 Kathua rape case: Plea by witnesses in SC alleging police harassment underlines need for witness protection law

File image of the Supreme Court of India. Reuters

This is not a new thing in India. For a large democracy like ours, we really don't take witness protection seriously. Why is a witness to a crime feeling harassed and withdrawing his or her initial statement? Why is there a climate of fear that overpowers a witness? This could be because in India, the State doesn't guarantee the protection of witnesses and their families.

Witness intimidation is a huge stumbling block when it comes to trials reaching their natural conclusion.

An intimidated witness could turn hostile on the stand or worse, go missing to avoid the persons who may be intimidating them.

India doesn't have a prosecution service that is at arm's length from its government. This could be one of the root problems behind the police being unable to prosecute effectively. Special Public Prosecutors are rare: The average work is left to the public prosecutor. Necessity has ensured that well off complainants manage to find private lawyers to assist the public prosecutor. However, even they face the problem of witness intimidation.

No person should need to be called "brave" to testify. A person who has witnessed a crime should be in a position where they have no qualms about testifying. This can only be achieved if India has an effective witness protection law along with a programme that helps highly sensitive witnesses (particularly in organised crime offences) be relocated and protected during and after trials.

An idea for this was actually mooted in Parliament. Four bills have been introduced in the Lok Sabha, but haven't yet been referred to committee: The Witness Protection Bill, The Witness (Protection of Identity) Bill, 2015, The National Witness Protection Bill, 2016 and the Witness Protection Program Bill, 2016.

None of these bills have been considered by the House. Kathua is just one of the many cases where India's witnesses need protection. If we, as a nation, are going to prosecute persons of power and influence, then witnesses need to be protected.

So far, the fact that these four bills are pending — no bill has ever been moved by any government — seems to indicate lacuna is to ensure those with power and influence are not prosecuted. This is something of national concern.

Updated Date: May 15, 2018 20:30:43 IST