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Witnesses shouldn't have to live in fear

An attempt to buy the witness in the Salman Khan hit-and-run case has once again highlighted an important shortcoming in the criminal justice system: the lack of protection for witnesses and victims.

On Tuesday, Muslim Shaikh, prime witness and victim in the Salman Khan hit-and-run case, alleged that an advocate who had once represented him in court attempted to bribe him. And this is not the only case.

Last year, death threats were issued to Ishrat Jahan's mother, her family members and friends supporting the criminal case to punish those involved in the fake encounter.

Anil Bheda, prime witness in the Lakhan Bhaiyya fake encounter, was murdered and his body was dumped in the jungles of Manor. Unless witness protection measures are seriously implemented, witnesses will continue to turn hostile.

The lack of a comprehensive witness protection programme as part of the criminal justice system has been effectively facilitating attempts to subvert justice in various cases across the country.

The Whistleblower Bill, meant to encourage people to disclose information on corruption or wilful misuse of power by public servants, including ministers, took two years to be cleared by the Rajya Sabha after it was passed by the Lok Sabha. Its implementation is still pending. Countries like the UK, US, Canada and Australia have stringent protection laws and witness protection programmes.

But in India, witnesses and others conscientiously pursuing criminal prosecution are left at the mercy of the Almighty. A well-designed witness protection programme would, no doubt, encourage such witnesses to come forward and testify against criminals, even if they are powerful people.

Also, for successful prosecution of criminal cases, it is mandatory that protection and support services are provided not only during the trial stage but, if required, at all stages of the criminal proceedings. It is high time that the government gives serious thought to implementing much-needed amendments to criminal law vis-à-vis witness protection.

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