Undertrials cannot indefinitely be detained pending trial, says Supreme Court

Petitioner was booked under UAPA and has been in prison awaiting trial for nearly a decade

Updated - December 03, 2021 12:03 am IST

Published - December 02, 2021 08:42 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Supreme Court of India

Supreme Court of India

Putting a person accused under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act behind bars for an unduly long time with no progress in the trial or appeal process is a violation of his or her fundamental right and a threat to public confidence in the administration of justice, the Supreme Court has held in a judgment.

“While deprivation of personal liberty for some period may not be avoidable, the period of deprivation pending trial/appeal cannot be unduly long. At the same time, timely delivery of justice is part of human rights and denial of speedy justice is a threat to public confidence in the administration of justice,” a Bench of Justices Ajay Rastogi and Abhay S. Oka observed in a recent judgment.

Once it is known that a timely trial is not possible and the accused has already suffered a significant period of incarceration, the courts are “obligated” to enlarge an undertrial on bail.

“Undertrials cannot indefinitely be detained pending trial... Deprivation of personal liberty without ensuring speedy trial is not consistent with Article 21 of the Constitution,” Justice Rastogi observed in the judgment.

The judgment came in an appeal filed by a 74-year-old man, Ashim. He was booked under UAPA and has been in prison awaiting trial for nearly a decade.

The court found that the State has arraigned 298 prosecution witnesses in his case.

“The charges against the accused are undoubtedly serious but the charges will have to be balanced with certain other factors like the period of incarceration which he has undergone and the likelihood period within which the trial can be expected to be finally concluded,” the Supreme Court said.

The court noted that cases investigated by the National Investigation Agency should be tried on a day-to-day basis and have priority over other cases.

“But the ground realities are totally different as in the instant case, after the chargesheets came to be filed way back in 2012. Charges were framed after seven years of filing of the chargesheet on June, 2019,” the court observed, ordering the accused to be released on bail.

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