Supreme Court Grants Bail, Criticizes NIA for Delayed Trial under UAPA

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The Supreme Court (SC) of India criticized the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for delaying the trial in a case under the UAPA, 1967 (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967). The SC vacation bench constituting Justice JB Pardiwala and Justice Ujjal Bhuyan stated that if the prosecuting agency cannot ensure the right to a speedy trial for the accused, they cannot oppose his bail application solely because the crime is serious. The bench said, “However serious a crime may be, an accused has a right to a speedy trial as enshrined under the Constitution of India.” It means that the right to a speedy trial, as guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, applies to all accused individuals, regardless of the crime's severity.

The bench granted bail to a man who had been in custody since February 2020 for allegedly smuggling counterfeit Indian currencies from Pakistan. It highlighted that “If the State or any prosecuting agency including the court concerned has no wherewithal to provide or protect the fundamental right of an accused to have a speedy trial as enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution then the State or any other prosecuting agency should not oppose the plea for bail on the ground that the crime committed is serious. Article 21 of the Constitution applies irrespective of the nature of the crime.” The Court cited several precedents, including Gudikanti Narasimhulu & Ors. v. Public Prosecutor, Gurbaksh Singh Sibba v. State of Punjab, and Hussainara Khatoon v. Home Secy., State of Bihar, to support their decision.

The Court also referenced the recent case of Mohd. Muslim v. State (NCT of Delhi), which held that bail could be granted if there is an undue delay in trial, even under stringent laws like the NDPS Act. Along with this, another case, Union of India vs. K.A. Najeeb, was also mentioned by the top court, which stated that the UAPA does not prevent constitutional courts from granting bail due to long trial delays. The bench noted that Section 19 of the NIA Act, 2008 requires trials to be held daily.

In this specific case, the SC observed that the NIA and the trial court's handling of the proceedings violated the accused's right to a speedy trial. It was noted that the trial court had not even framed charges despite four years passing and that the prosecution planned to examine at least 80 witnesses, raising concerns about when the trial would conclude. The Court reminded that the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty, stating, "We may hasten to add that the petitioner is still an accused; not a convict."

Advocating a compassionate approach to criminal justice, the Court noted that crimes often result from socio-economic circumstances. They stated, "Criminals are not born but made. The human potential in everyone is good, and so, never write off any criminal as beyond redemption." They emphasized that factors such as social and economic conditions, value erosion, parental neglect, and stress can lead to criminal behavior. The Court allowed the appeal and granted bail to the appellant, with terms and conditions to be set by the trial court.