Welcome changes in Evidence Act
The so-called "immoral" character of survivors of sexual violence can no longer be brought into question, digital evidence can be produced in courts, and questions on the character of witnesses in general can be raised only with the permission of the court. These proposed amendments to the Evidence Act have been approved by the Cabinet and will now be placed in parliament. While long overdue, this move deserves our highest praise and has been welcomed by rights activists who had been campaigning for these amendments.
A culture of victim-blaming has permeated the system that is meant to give justice to survivors. It is difficult to forget the controversial comments of a Dhaka Tribunal judge last year about giving rape survivors a 72-hour window only to report cases - a recommendation that was later removed from the full verdict after widespread condemnation, including from the law minister. Activists have long argued that defence lawyers attacking survivors with demeaning and obscene questions during cross-examinations is a huge deterrent in the process of justice that has only contributed to normalising sexual violence. Against this backdrop, the protection now given to survivors in court is a milestone to be celebrated.
However, this is only the first step towards tackling a deeper issue - the lack of sensitivity shown to survivors of violence in courts. To this date, there are no proper protocols or guidelines on protections that should be afforded to survivors in court in order to preserve their dignity and avoid re-traumatisation. The idea that a woman of "bad character" cannot be raped is the very pinnacle of patriarchal and gender-biased thought, and it has been part and parcel of our justice system for a long time. While removing it from the law is a huge step forward, more needs to be done to make these spaces safer for women who are already struggling with social stigma and the trauma of violence. It should be noted that the amended version of Section 146(3) still allows for the moral character of witnesses to be questioned if the court permits. It is now up to the judges to ensure that this is done only when absolutely necessary and is not allowed to become a regular line of cross-examination.
Precautions should also be taken with regard to digital evidence. In a world where almost everything is digitised, it is critical to allow it in courts, but the collection of such evidence must be done through transparent means. As we know all too well from the Digital Security Act, it is not difficult to misuse and abuse digital information. While digital evidence can be a crucial part of the process of justice, it must not be used as an excuse to ignore growing concerns over data protection and privacy.