- The formalisation of a witness protection scheme is a landmark moment with the potential to improve India’s low conviction rates.
Failure of many criminal cases:
- The failure of many criminal cases after witnesses turn hostile in court and reject the prosecution case epitomises a dysfunctional criminal justice delivery system. A prosecution witness contradicting the chargesheet points to two scenarios: either the accused has been falsely implicated or the witness has been threatened/ influenced. Both damage the credibility of the state that prosecutes and the police that investigates.
- This is where a witness protection scheme reassures witnesses that their security and interests will be safeguarded. The Asaram rape case in which multiple witnesses were killed was the trigger for reform but the new scheme must scale beyond high-profile cases. Power relations and a climate of impunity lurk behind many offences and witnesses are particularly vulnerable. Take rape victims who face immense pressure to compromise and recant their testimonies during trial. If the scheme works, the presently abysmal 25% conviction rate in rape cases will improve significantly.
- The scheme revolves heavily around a “competent authority” which will adjudicate on witness protection demands and seek “threat analysis” reports from the police.
- It envisions constant police protection to witnesses, lodging them in safe houses or giving them new identities if necessary. But the ground reality is a manpower crunch which makes it difficult for cops to keep track of witnesses and even ensure their presence in court. This allows the accused to freely intimidate witnesses and spurs police to broker settlements.
- From watching haplessly as cases fail, state governments have another opportunity to professionalise police forces.
- To ensure the success of witness protection, states must implement Supreme Court guidelines on police reforms too.