The Parliamentary Standing Committee has pulled up the state government for inaction over five years on a Law Commission report regarding an eyewitness identification and protection programme.
While most states have expressed their agreement to the commission’s recommendations on providing protection, the Maharashtra government has expressed reservations about providing physical protection to witnesses. “Nothing significant was being done to provide protection to witnesses, even though there was an urgent need to ensure anonymity of witnesses,” said the report released last month.
The committee noted that witnesses need to be protected to ensure speedy trial in sensitive cases that sometimes remain pending for years due to unwillingness of key witnesses.
The committee comprising Members of Parliament from the Rajya Sabha was reviewing the status of promises made by the government in 2009 to amend necessary laws to protect witnesses. In its report, the committed has said Maharashtra is one of six states that have failed to act on the Law Commission report. However, the state’s additional chief secretary of the Home department promised the committee that they would submit their views “very soon,” it added.
Apart from the witness protection programme, the government has failed to act on other important reports such as the National Police Commission report too, says Maharashtra’s former top cop Satish Sahney.
“Though the protection of witness is imperative, it cannot be implemented in isolation, as it needs huge government resources. It could be possible only by bringing in long pending reforms in the police,” he added.
In view of the various Supreme Court judgements recommending protection of witnesses, the Law Commission of India, a government body for legal reforms, in its 198th report recommended a detailed framework for Witness Identity Protection and Witness Protection Programmes.
The commission recommended witness anonymity and protection where there is danger to the witness, to his properties or to those of his relatives, at all stages — investigation, inquiry, trial, appeal — and thereafter also.
The Union Home Minister on the floor of Parliament assured members that the government has already taken steps to provide protection to eyewitnesses.
As criminal law and procedure are on the concurrent list, the report was forwarded to all the 28 states and Union Territories for their suggestions and views back in 2008.
However, even five years later, the Union Home ministry is yet to decide on the report as it says that states are taking their “own time” in finalising their views on the recommendations, despite several reminders.
In the past, well-known cases such as the Jessica Lal murder and the Best Bakery case were delayed because witnesses turned hostile.
The absence of a Witness Protection programme is one of the primary reasons behind our failure to convict those guilty of criminal acts be it brute gender violence, murder or mass or targeted communal crimes, said Teesta Setalvad, human rights activist. “It is shocking if true that the Maharashtra government has reacted negatively to the Law Commission’s report as one of the major factors for getting justice (126 life imprisonments) for the 2002 Gujarat pogrom was protection given to 570 witnesses and me by the Supreme Court,” she added.