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Bakery case: focus on witness protection

By J. Venkatesan

NEW DELHI, NOV. 6. The volte-face by Zahira Sheikh, key witness in the Best Bakery case, has prompted human rights activists to urge the Centre to implement the suggestions of the Law Commission for evolving a comprehensive witness protection programme.

They have suggested that the Union Government be entrusted with the responsibility of providing protection to all witnesses in all major trials in a manner that it considers appropriate, including taking the assistance of Central forces.

Response sought

They have pointed out that the Supreme Court had already sought the Centre's response for evolving a scheme to protect witnesses in important cases and federal offences and rights violations. It may be noted that all the 21 accused in the Best Bakery case have been acquitted as all witnesses turned hostile. It has been alleged that they were threatened not to adduce evidence against the accused. The situation has been further complicated with Ms. Zahira asserting that the statement she gave before the trial court was correct and that she was compelled to change her stand before the apex court.

Rights activists say a similar situation might happen in all the major trials where there are similar complaints against the State police. There is no established witness protection programme and the Centre must consider the need for federal police to investigate mass crimes where, by its very nature, investigation by the local police may not appear to be sufficient.

Concern at acquittals

Expressing concern over acquittal of accused in a number of criminal cases due to witnesses turning hostile, the Law Commission has suggested enactment of a comprehensive legislation for witness protection and to ensure that evidence of witnesses once collected at the stage of investigation was not allowed to be destroyed later.

In a consultation paper on witness protection, the Commission pleads for introduction of special procedures in the criminal law to balance the need for anonymity of witnesses on the one hand and the rights of the accused on the other. The Evidence Act requires to be looked into afresh to provide for protection to a witness.

While the aspect of protecting the evidence of witnesses from the danger of their turning `hostile' has received limited attention at the hands of Parliament in some special statutes dealing with terrorism, there is an urgent need to have a comprehensive legislative scheme dealing with the second aspect of physical protection of the witness as well. The Commission is expected to make its final recommendations possibly along with a draft Bill.

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