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Protect the witness

The Swathi murder case in Chennai must trigger a move to enact strong witness protection laws and schemes.

Written by Muthupandi Ganesan , Manuraj Shanmughasundaram | Updated: July 18, 2016 12:12 pm
chenna, chennai murder, Infosys employee, Infosys employee murder, Nungambakkam railway station, Female Infosys employee murder, womam murder, india news (Left) CCTV footage of the suspect outside the station. He was seen arguing with Swathi before attacking her

Tamil Nadu is in a state of shock after the bloody and gruesome murder of Swathi, a 24-year old techie, which took place in broad daylight while she was waiting on a platform in a Chennai suburban train station some days ago. Equally shocking was what transpired in the two to three hours after she was attacked with an aruval (billhook). None of the bystanders — and there were many — went to help the young woman when she was attacked by a man, who we now know as Ram Kumar, a Facebook acquaintance-turned-stalker. Neither did they take the dying woman to a hospital. Along with Swathi, collective civic duty too died that day in Chennai.

Why are the public so passive or disinclined to intervene when a serious crime occurs? The reasons for non-intervention range from fear of reprisals by the assailants and their families, to harassment and intimidation by the police starting with the investigation. Furthermore, the process of giving witness statements and having to depose in the court and be subjected to cross-examination by ruthless defence advocates can be a brutal and bruising experience for a witness.

In the Swathi murder, police have secured just one witness, a shopkeeper at the railway station. Media reports indicate that the investigators held a test identification parade (TIP) in the prison premises. This runs contrary to the Supreme Court directions in the Shaji vs Kerala case, where such identification parades have been disregarded in cases with high media exposure. Evidence from the TIP is most likely to be challenged in court.

Being a witness in the police investigation and judicial process in India, even in sensational cases, requires a person to have a strong sense of civic duty as well as stamina to withstand the consequent social and economic impact. For instance, a witness can’t recover the loss of income from attending court proceedings, which often get adjourned without notice or explanation. There is also stigma attached to being associated with criminal cases in any capacity. In some cases, public witnesses are subject to coercion or inducements to help the accused. It is, thus, incumbent upon the government to create an environment which will allow bystanders to help victims of crime and depose freely in courts.

One way to address this problem is to provide significant legal protection to witnesses, so that they are treated with respect and compassion during the investigation as well as the trial. In the UK, witnesses who are deemed “intimidated” due to fear or distressed about testifying in court get special protection during the police investigation and the trial process. The “special measures” include automatic right of witness “anonymity” in murder cases involving firearms and knife, which means any witness who comes forward can be confident of giving evidence knowing that the accused and his family cannot trace him or her, thereby reducing the scope for intimidation and harassment of the witness. During the trial, the court too can offer a wide variety of “special measures” so that an intimidated witness can give evidence behind a screen, by way of video-link or “in camera” so that she is protected from public view and the accused. Further, the court could also impose restriction on media reporting, so that the name of the witnesses is protected. In extreme and serious cases, where the witness is judged to be at the risk of serious harm, the police has a special department known as the “UK Protected Persons Service” for the safety and well-being of a witness and her family.

In comparison, India has been slow to implement witness protection measures. Among the states, Delhi government alone has notified, as recently as in January 2016, a witness protection scheme. The guidelines notified by the Union government, as per the Supreme Court directions in the Save Life vs Union of India case, calls for protecting any “good samaritan” who chooses to “assist an injured person in distress on the road”. However, it seems unlikely that these guidelines cover bystanders who extend assistance to victims of murders or crimes, which do not take place on the road.

The Law Commission of India, most recently in its 198th report, has made extensive recommendations for the enactment of witness protection schemes, but governments have failed to act decisively. Two amendments made to the Code of Criminal Procedure, in sections 195A and 275, deal with penalties for threatening witnesses and deposing evidence via video. However, governments need to devise legislative enactments, which will provide comprehensive protection to bystanders who are witness to public crimes.

Nirbhaya served as a wake-up call for authorities to review criminal laws governing sexual assault and rape. Similarly, the Swathi murder must trigger a move to enact strong witness protection laws and schemes. In their absence, the public may not have the confidence to step forward and perform their civic duty when they witness a crime. If vulnerable victims of crime are to stand any chance of securing justice, then witnesses must be secure in the knowledge that the police and judiciary will protect them from fear and intimidation.

Ganesan is a barrister and Shanmughasundaram is a lawyer and spokesperson for the DMK.

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  1. Harihar Mani
    Jul 18, 2016 at 11:30 am
    As regards to law and order,it is breaking down in Western World too.Did you not hear Nice,Orlando and Batan Rouge.?You can not stop terror acts by lone Wolf.As Lincoln once said'Man can only invoke'THE BETTER ANGELS OF HIS NATURE.Evil will rear its head,otherwise.Ramkumar though a failure in Engineering,but still had enough education to know better.Swathi had her Right not'to go for him.Will this basic right and her wish must be recognised by all DMK and ADMK people in T.N.That's minimum ,you guys can do.You owe it to yourself,if not to Swathi,she is beyond all pain RIP.,dear .H.mai,usa
    1. Harihar Mani
      Jul 18, 2016 at 11:15 am
      I will tell you,today,the guy will get off.That's the way ADMK AND DMK politics work.Swathi means nothing.Remember what Anna Dorai once said.allow me to make 3 movies,without sensoring,and I will make T.Nad.seperate from India.I admire him for his honesty.That's what Tamilnadu has become.Thank God I left Then Madras State when I had my chance.Swathi had no place to go.
      1. Harihar Mani
        Jul 18, 2016 at 11:21 am
        One piece of advice to parents like Swathi's father.Girls with Swathi's talent and good breeding,many NRI would have consented to make her equal partner in any land in Western World,all they needed to advertise in New york or London Times.Parents have to be doing their duty.The guy was harrasing and stakling her and his father did nothing.He failed her.That's how I feel.H.Mani,usa
        1. N
          Jul 19, 2016 at 2:26 pm
          Criminals do not fear our country for they are protected by our politicians who control police and justice system. In a good country, state should punish culprits without hesitation and police should not rest in peace till culprits are punished. By the way our society also supports killings for protecting honour of caste, religion etc and police and bureaucracy are frequently interfered in their duties by our politicians. Two things may be done to prevent these type of incidents. 1)Police should be insulated from politicians by giving independence of CAG/CEC to DGP/CoP 2)Giving compulsory military training to all men and women above 10 years old so as to make good people lt;br/gt;bold and strong to take on criminals
          1. S
            Aug 10, 2016 at 7:19 am
            Pity witnesses are afraid of probably the same fate of extermination. This is a clear case of covering up evidences. Why couldn't the hospital that Ramkumar was admitted issue whether the cut on his throat was really self inflicted or not?
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