In what could be the first such move in the country, the Maharashtra Police has started to convene ‘moot courts’ to ‘examine’ witnesses in cases registered under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and the Protection of Civil Rights(PCR) Act, 1955, in a bid to improve its prosecution record in the face of many witnesses turning hostile in such cases.
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The state police embarked on this after a recent study by the Protection of Civil Right cell of the Maharashtra Police revealed that 33 per cent of acquittals under the two special laws, both aimed at safeguarding members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, were because of witnesses turning hostile.
A moot court is like a mock court often convened by students of law to practice legal arguments.The Maharashtra Police is using this concept to prepare witnesses for upcoming trials so that their depositions help ensure conviction.
The exercise has already been kicked off in a few districts, with the Pune rural police summoning witnesses in the upcoming trials. At the mock courts, policemen pose as public prosecutors, defence lawyers and judges and convene hearings. The witnesses are ‘examined’ and at the end of the hearing, they are given a ‘feedback’ on the points they need to remember while deposing before the ‘real’ court.
“With hostile witnesses contributing to the major chunk of acquittals, we have decided to hold moot courts to help prepare witnesses in upcoming trials,” Special Inspector General of Police, Protection of Civil Rights, Quaiser Khalid told The Indian Express. The PCR is a specialised cell of the Maharashtra Police mandated to deal with cases relating to the Atrocities Act and the PCR Act.
Sources in the Maharashtra Police told The Indian Express that the exercise would be limited to upcoming trials. “We cannot hold moot courts for ongoing cases as we may be accused of ‘tutoring’ the witnesses. We will restrict this to only to cases where the trials are about to commence,” said an official.
Sources said that for the exercise, every district has been told to draw up a list of cases registered under the two Acts slated for trials. The witnesses in the cases have to be identified and summoned for the mock courts.
To prepare for this, officers from PCR have sat through many ongoing trials to observe the proceedings and the depositions by witnesses. “We have observed that in most cases, the witnesses fail to recollect the incident itself. In some cases, they cannot identify the accused and therefore are termed hostile by the court. The moot court intends to plug this,” said an official.
“After the Maratha- Dalit agitation last year, an exercise was undertaken to study the cases registered under these Acts to find out their present status. Our officers were also asked to attend hearings and prepare a report on the reasons behind the acquittals. We found out that 33 per cent of the acquittals were due to witnesses being declared hostile. In the reports, the officers also shared the circumstances under which witnesses were deemed hostile,” revealed another official. “One of the biggest problems is that the cases are heard after a huge time gap. The witnesses therefore tend to forget what they had told the police during the course of the investigations. In many cases, they even fail to recollect the incident itself,” said the official.
While hostile witnesses contribute to 33 per cent of acquittals in cases registered under the Atrocities and PCR Acts, the numbers are higher in serious offences involving murder, rape, dacoity and others where provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) are also invoked along with those under the two Acts. Together they constitute over 50 per cent of acquittals.
Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) people account for nearly 19 per cent of Maharashtra’s population, yet only 1 per cent of all FIRs registered by the police across the state are on complaints from those belonging to these communities.
Besides the moot court, the Maharashtra Police and the Social Justice and Welfare department and Law department have started a sensitisation drive — for both the police and people from SC/ST communities across the state. The drive aims to ensure that the police do not treat a complaint, which otherwise merits registration of an FIR under these two Acts, as a non-cognisable (NC) offence, which is one of the reasons suspected for poor registration of complaints.
“Since September last year, we have held 838 awareness camps. Many of these are being held in villages and at district levels to sensitise both our men and the members of the community on the provisions of the Act and the remedies available to them,” said the official.