A court in Delhi on Friday recalled the soft copies of the 17,000-page chargesheet filed by the police in the “Delhi riots conspiracy case” after a document revealed the full names and addresses of 15 “public witnesses”, whose identities the police claimed require protection.

Additional Sessions Judge Amitabh Rawat of the Karkardooma district court ordered the lawyers of the accused in FIR 59/2020 to return the pen drives with a soft copy of chargesheet, and to destroy and delete any prints. The court said they would be given a new copy in a new pen drive, this time with the identities redacted of the protected witnesses.

“In view of the court, there is a mistake on part of the Investigating Officer, and since the purpose of giving protection to the identity of the protected witnesses is for fair trial and for specific protection to the witnesses, hence, the immediate protection order are required to be passed,” the judge observed. He added that “no legitimate right of the accused persons are curtailed by the disposal of this application”.

The chargesheet, filed on September 16, details charges and evidence against 15 of the 21 people arrested under FIR 59/2020. It accused the activists involved in the peaceful protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of hatching a conspiracy to defame the country. All accused have been charged under 26 sections of the Indian Penal Code, including for murder, sedition, promoting communal enmity, two sections of the Arms Act, and four sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

In the “final report” section, 15 public witnesses – four Hindu and 11 Muslim, as it later emerged – have been quoted, according to The Wire. The document contains the names and address of protected witness ,otherwise referred to only by their pseudonyms such as Alpha, Beta, Hector, Delta, Echo, Mike, and others.

The blunder was made after the Delhi Police Special Cell investigators themselves insisted on the secrecy of the witnesses. In June, the Delhi Police had requested the Patiala district court to conceal the identities of public witnesses and submission of truncated statements under Section 161 and 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code. The police said the witnesses “had expressed fear for their lives from the accused persons as they are residing/working in the same locality or they are known to each other”.

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During the hearing on Friday, Public Prosecutor Amit Prasad told Rawat that the chargesheet was “very lengthy, bulky and voluminous,” and the names of some protected witnesses were “inadvertently” disclosed “by way of attaching untruncated judicial and investigation papers in the chargesheet, which is neither intentional nor deliberate”.

Prasad said that at least three protected witnesses have been approached by persons with “vested interests”, in relation to the case. Therefore, he said it was necessary to extract the relevant document from the judicial file, replace it with a truncated version, seal the original version and keep it on judicial record.

The public prosecutor asked the court to direct the accused, their lawyers, and associates not to “divulge, publish, disclose, disseminate, or disclose the identity of the public protected witnesses, try and contact them directly or indirectly” in any manner whatsoever. “The life, safety, and security of the protected witnesses are of paramount importance,” Prasad said.

Delhi Police’s statement

In a statement earlier this week, the Delhi Police had also admitted it had “inadvertently” disclosed the names and addresses of 15 protected witnesses and the dates on which they had recorded their statements before a magistrate.

“During the course of investigation, it was deemed necessary that the identities of some witnesses should not be disclosed in the public domain,” a Delhi Police spokesperson was quoted as saying by The Hindu. “However, a court-related document containing the identities of some of these witnesses has been inadvertently included in the copies of the chargesheet provided to the accused persons as part of compliance of judicial orders.”

The police added that the witnesses are court-protected and steps are being taken to ensure their safety and security and “to address all concerns in this regard”.

On October 7, two of the protected witnesses named in the chargesheet had expressed their shock and disbelief and told The Quint that the lapse puts “a very real threat to their life”.