Supreme Court expresses concern of witnesses turning hostile, analyses reasons [read order]


Supreme Court has expressed its deep concern by observing that it is becoming a common phenomenon, almost a regular feature, that in criminal cases witnesses turn hostile. The court went into a detailed analysis of the reasons for witnesses turning hostile. This concern is contained in the judgment dated 22 November 2016 delivered by a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices A.K. Sikri and Amitava Roy in the case of Ramesh and Others v. State of Haryana [Criminal Appeal No. 2526 of 2014].

The Supreme Court observed as under:

“We find that it is becoming a common phenomenon, almost a regular feature, that in criminal cases witnesses turn hostile. There could be various reasons for this behaviour or attitude of the witnesses. It is possible that when the statements of such witnesses were recorded under Section 161 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 by the police during investigation, the Investigating Officer forced them to make such statements and, therefore, they resiled therefrom while deposing in the Court and justifiably so. However, this is no longer the reason in most of the cases. This trend of witnesses turning hostile is due to various other factors. It may be fear of deposing against the accused/delinquent or political pressure or pressure of other family members or other such sociological factors. It is also possible that witnesses are corrupted with monetary considerations.”

The Supreme Court referred to the following previous cases decided by it in which similar concern about witnesses turning hostile was expressed:

  • Krishna Mochi v. State of Bihar, (2002) 6 SCC 81.
  • Zahira Habibullah v. State of Gujarat, (2006) 3 SCC 374.
  • Sakshi v. Union of India, (2004) 5 SCC 518.
  • State v. Sanjeev Nanda, (2012) 8 SCC 450.

On the analysis of these cases, the Supreme Court held that following reasons can be discerned which make witnesses retracting their statements before the Court and turning hostile:

(i) Threat/intimidation.

(ii) Inducement by various means.

(iii) Use of muscle and money power by the accused.

(iv) Use of Stock Witnesses.

(v) Protracted Trials.

(vi) Hassles faced by the witnesses during investigation and trial.

(vii) Non-existence of any clear-cut legislation to check hostility of witness.

The Court observed that threat and intimidation has been one of the major causes for the hostility of witnesses. Bentham said: “witnesses are the eyes and ears of justice”. When the witnesses are not able to depose correctly in the court of law, it results in low rate of conviction and many times even hardened criminals escape the conviction. It shakes public confidence in the criminal justice delivery system. It is for this reason there has been a lot of discussion on witness protection and from various quarters demand is made for the State to play a definite role in coming out with witness protection programme, at least in sensitive cases involving those in power, who have political patronage and could wield muscle and money power, to avert trial getting tainted and derailed and truth becoming a casualty. A stern and emphatic message to this effect was given in Zahira Habibullah’s case as well.

Justifying the measures to be taken for witness protection to enable the witnesses to depose truthfully and without fear, Justice Malimath Committee Report on Reforms of Criminal Justice System, 2003 has remarked as under:

“11.3 Another major problem is about safety of witnesses and their family members who face danger at different stages. They are often threatened and the seriousness of the threat depends upon the type of the case and the background of the accused and his family. Many times crucial witnesses are threatened or injured prior to their testifying in the court. If the witness is still not amenable he may even be murdered. In such situations the witness will not come forward to give evidence unless he is assured of protection or is guaranteed anonymity of some form of physical disguise…Time has come for a comprehensive law being enacted for protection of the witness and members of his family.”

Similar observations of Law Commission of India in its 198th Report are as under:

“The reason is not far to seek. In the case of victims of terrorism and sexual offences against women and juveniles, we are dealing with a section of society consisting of very vulnerable people, be they victims or witnesses. The victims and witnesses are under fear of or danger to their lives or lives of their relations or to their property. It is obvious that in the case of serious offences under the Indian Penal code, 1860 and other special enactments, some of which we have referred to above, there are bound to be absolutely similar situations for victims and witnesses. While in the case of certain offences under special statutes such fear or danger to victims and witnesses may be more common and pronounced, in the case of victims and witnesses involved or concerned with some serious offences, fear may be no less important. Obviously, if the trial in the case of special offences is to be fair both to the accused as well as to the victims/witnesses, then there is no reason as to why it should not be equally fair in the case of other general offences of serious nature falling under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. It is the fear or danger or rather the likelihood thereof that is common to both cases. That is why several general statutes in other countries provide for victim and witness protection.”

Supreme Court further observed that apart from the above, another significant reason for witnesses turning hostile may be what is described as ‘culture of compromise’.

Read full order of the court:

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