Report No. 198
15.13 NHRC v. State of Gujarat:: (Best Bakery Case) (2003): need for law of witness protection:
We now come to the Best Bakery case from Gujarat which came up to the Supreme Court. In the public interest case, (W.P. Crl. No. 109/2003 and batch) in National Human Rights Commission v. State of Gujarat a series of orders were passed by the Supreme Court.
There, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) filed a public interest case seeking retrial on the ground that the witnesses were pressurised by the accused to go back on their earlier statements and the trial was totally vitiated. In its order dated 8.8.2003 NHRC vs, State of Gujarat (2003(9) SCALE 329), the Supreme Court observed:
"A right to a reasonable and fair trial is protected under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India, Art. 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a signatory, as well as Art. 6 of the European Convention for Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
On perusal of the allegations in the special leave petition and number of criminal cases coming to this Court, we are prima facie of the opinion that criminal justice delivery system is not in sound health. The concept of a reasonable and fair trial would suppose justice to the accused as also to the victims. From the allegations made in the special leave petition together with other materials annexed thereto as also from our experience, it appears that there are many faults in the criminal justice delivery system because of apathy on the part of the police officers to record proper report, their general conduct towards the victims, faulty investigation, failure to take recourse to scientific investigation etc."
Then, on the question of protection of witnesses, the Supreme Court referred to the absence of a statute on the subject, as follows:
"No law has yet been enacted, not even a scheme has been framed by the Union of India or by the State Government for giving protection to the witnesses. For successful prosecution of the criminal cases, protection to witnesses is necessary as the criminals have often access to the police and the influential people. We may also place on record that the conviction rate in the country has gone down to 39.6% and the trials in most of the sensational cases do not start till the witnesses are won over. In this view of the matter, we are of opinion that this petition (by NHRC) be treated to be one under Art. 32 of the Constitution of India as public interest litigation."
The Court directed that in the counter-affidavit of the Gujarat Government, it should indicate the steps, if any, taken by it for extending protection to the lives of victims, their families and their relations; if not, the same should be done. The Court also wanted to know whether any action had been taken by the Gujarat Government against those who had allegedly extended threats of coercion to the witnesses, as a result whereof the witnesses had changed their statements before the Court. The Court also directed the Union of India to inform the Court about the proposals, if any, "to enact a law for grant of protection to the witnesses as is prevalent in several countries".
By a subsequent order passed on 12th July, 2004, the Supreme Court issued directions to all States and Union Territories to give suggestions for formulation of appropriate guidelines in the matter.