Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Zahira to go to jail

A little unfortunate, but a required turn of events in India today. Zahira Sheikh is a victim of a heinous crime, she is one of the witness, called to testify in the Best Bakery case, of Gujarat. She originally testified to in the courts in Gujarat, but then later changed her testimony, after the case was transferred to Mumbai. Ironically she could have expected more protection and less problems, since the case was outside the jurisdiction of Gujarat. But what caused her to change her mind, and also accuse the people who were helping her, we may not know. But then that is what she did.

In a move that can set a precedent of sorts in India, this has been deemed as contempt of court. This is a ruling by the highest court in India and it means that it is now a case law and similar cases of false testimony, hostile witnesses, perjury will have to be dealt with the same or similar amount of punishment. And the judge in the case can set aside these testimony and proceed with the adjudication of the matter at hand.

But the issue is not that simple. The court system may have taken a step forward in the prosecution of witnesses who are not fulfilling their obligations. How about protection of witnesses ? That is still done today, by the police, and that is where the problem lies. The police has clearly not fulfilled their role in maintaining law and order. Very clearly, there needs to be centralized witness protection force, that probably works with CBI or something like that. It is important because, witness tampering is rampant in India, and we need some kind of prevention program. There will always be exceptions and cases when even the best witness protection process does, but something that does even half a decent job will be a good start.

This case creates a lot of pressure on the witness to ensure that they stick to their guns. Which means, the reluctance to stand up and testify will be very high. But the fact is that hostile or not, willing or not, a person can be called to testify in court, and must speak the truth. This is a start, but there needs to be lot of immediate follow-up.

Zahira Sheikh sentenced to prison

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