Background- The issue of witness protection scheme had cropped up earlier when the top court was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking protection for witnesses in rape cases involving Asaram Bapu.
In a society governed by a Rule of Law, it is imperative to ensure that investigation, prosecution and trial of criminal offences is not prejudiced because of threats or intimidation to witnesses. The need to protect witnesses has been emphasized by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in “Zahira Habibulla H. sheikh and Another v. State of Gujarat” 2004 (4) SCC 158 SC. While defining Fair Trial, the Hon’ble Supreme Court observed that “If the witnesses get threatened or are forced to give false evidence that also would not result in fair trial”.
In 1958, the 14th Report of Law Commission indicated about the need to protect witnesses. The 4th Report of the National Police Commission, 1980 also dealt with the said subject. In 154th Report (1996) The Law Commission dealt with the plight of the witnesses. The report spelt out the inconvenience and the lack of facilities and the threat from the accused to the witnesses. The 172 and 178th report also dealt with the said subject and recommended that witnesses should be protected from the wrath of the accused in any eventuality. The Hon’ble Supreme Court also repeatedly observed about the importance to give protection to witnesses.
The edifice of the scheme stands on the categorization of the witnesses as per the threat perception. Three categories keeping in view of the degree of threat has been conceptualized i.e.
Category A- pertains to the scenario where the threat is graver and extends to life of a witness or his family members;
Category B- comprises that degree where threat is to the safety, reputation, property of witness or family members, and lastly,
Category C- comprises of the degree where threats are more moderate as compared to the threats conceptualized in the categories A and B. Category C extends to harassment or intimidation of the witness or his family members reputation.
Types of Protection Measures:
The types of Protection measures envisaged under the Scheme are to be applied in proportion to the threat. The same are not expected to go for infinite time, but are expected to be for a specific duration on need basis which is to be reviewed regularly. The measures provided for the protection of the witnesses include the following:-
(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 unlisted telephone number;
(d) Installation of security devices in the witness’s home such as security doors, CCTV, alarms, fencing etc.;
(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 for 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 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 day to day basis without adjournments;
(n) Awarding time to time periodical financial aids/grants to the witness from Witness Protection Fund for the purpose of re-location, sustenance or starting new vocation/profession, if desired;
The Witness Protection Scheme, 2018 is a first attempt at the National level to holistically provide for the protection of the witnesses which will go a long way in eliminating secondary victimization. The witnesses being eyes and ears of justice, and play an important role in bringing perpetrators of crime to justice. This scheme attempts at ensuring that witnesses receive appropriate and adequate protection. This will go a long way in strengthening the Criminal Justice System in the Country and will consequently enhance National Security Scenario.