Wanted: A law to Protect Witnesses

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shivraj-chauhan

There seems to be no end to the BJP’s woes. Even as Lalitgate engulfs the Modi Government, in general, and Sushma Swaraj, in particular, and Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s indiscretions threaten to unravel her government in Rajasthan, comes the news of the death of yet another individual suspected of involvement in the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board or Vyapam (acronym in Hindi for Madhya Pradesh Vyavsayik Pareeksha Mandal) scam. At last count, at least 24 suspects and/or witnesses (some reports suggest over 40) in the case had died mysteriously, bringing Chief Minister Shivraj Chauhan’s Government in Madhya Pradesh under suspicion and putting a question mark over the ongoing High Court-monitored probe by a special task force of the police.

Most recently, a young veterinarian who was lodged in an Indore jail was reported dead. Among some of the other accused who were found dead under mysterious circumstances was Shailesh Yadav, son of Madhya Pradesh Governor Ram Naresh Yadav. For its part, the Madhya Pradesh Government has washed its hands off the spree of deaths with Home Minister Babulal Gaur saying, insensitively, that “all the deaths are natural deaths. Whether in jail or [elsewhere], everyone has to die someday”.

This is not the first time witnesses have been intimidated, hurt or, worse, killed. One saw it happen to some witnesses in the rape trial of the self-proclaimed Godman Asaram Bapu and the National Rural Health Mission scam, which rocked Uttar Pradesh not so long ago. In the latter case, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had asked the UP Police to take stricter measures for ensuring the security of the witnesses/accused.

The media discourse has generally tended to centre around the unexplained deaths; not much attention has been paid to protecting witnesses, for which necessary laws need to be put in place. To preserve and protect the integrity of the criminal justice system, it is imperative that going forward witnesses and/or accused are provided adequate protection and the full weight of the law is brought to bear on anyone found guilty of intimidating, coercing or causing physical harm of injury to them. The 168th report of the Law Commission of India can be a good starting point. The August 2006 report on “witness identity protection and witness protection programmes” dwelled at some length on witness identity protection during investigation and in court, and witness protection programmes outside court. The March 2003 report of the Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System chaired by Justice VS Malimath could come in handy, too.

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