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Prolonged Detention Due to Trial Delays: A Violation of Rights

In a significant ruling in the case of Ankur Chaudhary v. State of Madhya Pradesh [SLP (Crl) No. 004648 / 2024], the Supreme Court of India has emphasized that prolonged imprisonment resulting from undue trial delays violates the fundamental right to liberty enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution. Recognizing this infringement, the Court declared that bail can be granted to individuals accused under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985even if the stringent conditions outlined in Section 37 of the Act are not entirely satisfied.

This ruling can also be cited for release of accused persons incarcerated in cases registered under POCSO Act, UAPA and PMLA in different jails of the country due to unreasonable delay in trial. The cases of people incarcerated for long particularly in allegedly false and motivated cases may be taken up first.

Supreme Court's Observations:
The bench comprising Justices Maheshwari and Viswanathan emphasized the critical need for timely justice within a reasonable time frame. They recognized that prolonged incarceration resulting from protracted trials violates the fundamental right to personal liberty enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Consequently, the bench highlighted that in such circumstances, conditional liberty could be considered, overriding the statutory embargo under Section 37(1)(b) of the NDPS Act.

This observation underscores the judiciary's commitment to ensuring that procedural delays do not undermine individual liberties. The Court's stance balances the statutory mandates of the NDPS Act with the constitutional protections of personal liberty, especially in cases involving stringent provisions like prolonged detention without trial. This step is significant in addressing the concerns that arise from prolonged incarceration and the need for expeditious justice.

Section 37 of the NDPS Act:

Section 37 of the statute outlines the criteria that an accused person must meet in order to be granted bail. This provision stipulates that bail should not be granted to an accused unless two specific conditions are satisfied. Firstly, the court must have a reasonable belief that the accused is not culpable of the alleged offense. This means that the accused must present evidence or arguments that create a reasonable doubt about their guilt. The court will consider the available evidence and assess whether it is sufficient to justify granting bail.

Secondly, the court must be convinced that the accused will not engage in reoffending if released on bail. This condition is intended to ensure that the accused will not pose a threat to public safety or interfere with the administration of justice. The court will consider various factors to determine whether the accused is likely to commit an offense if granted bail, including their past criminal history, the nature and circumstances of the alleged offense, and any evidence indicating a propensity for reoffending or other criminal behaviour.

The Case at Hand:
The accused had been detained for over two years, facing charges related to Section 8, read with Sections 22 and 29 of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act. Despite this extended period of incarceration, the trial had not concluded. The defence argued that the Panch witness, who had testified before the trial court, did not support the prosecution's allegations. Conversely, the prosecution asserted that bail should be denied because the Investigating Officer had not yet been examined as a Panch witness.

After carefully examining the evidence, the Court determined that the Panch witnesses did not corroborate the prosecution's account. Consequently, the Court decided against considering the Investigating Officer as a Panch witness. The court recognized that the excessive delay in the trial, leading to the accused's prolonged imprisonment, constituted a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to life and liberty. Consequently, the Court allowed the accused to be released on bail.

Impact on Future Cases:
The Supreme Court's decision in this case sets a clear precedent that the provisions of Section 37 of the NDPS Act cannot be used to deny bail solely on the grounds of prolonged trial delays. This ruling emphasizes the judiciary's paramount role in upholding fundamental rights, including the right to personal liberty. By reinforcing this principle, the Court has ensured that statutory requirements do not take precedence over constitutional guarantees. This precedent is especially significant in cases where procedural delays have resulted in extended pre-trial detention, highlighting the imperative for timely justice.

Previous Rulings:
The Supreme Court's decision in this case builds upon a consistent line of rulings that have upheld similar views. In the case of Mohd. Muslim v. State (NCT of Delhi), the court held that conditional bail can take precedence over the statutory restrictions of Section 37 in situations of inordinate delays in judicial proceedings. Similar decision was taken by the court in the case of Rabi Prakash v. State of Odisha. These rulings reflect a coherent judicial approach towards safeguarding individual liberties in the face of procedural lapses. The consistent application of this principle ensures that procedural irregularities do not become impediments to the realization of fundamental rights, including the right to a fair trial and the right to personal liberty.

Article 21 0f the Constitution:
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution safeguards the fundamental right to life and personal liberty. It prohibits deprivation of life or liberty without adherence to a legal procedure. The judiciary has broadly interpreted this article to include rights such as speedy trial. The recent judgment by the Supreme Court reinforces this wide interpretation, highlighting that excessive trial delays infringe the core principles of Article 21.

Significance of the Ruling:
The Supreme Court's decision holds significant weight due to several factors.

Firstly, it reaffirms the principle of fundamental rights being paramount and unassailable by procedural delays. This ruling safeguards the right to a speedy trial as an essential aspect of personal liberty.

The decision balances statutory requirements with constitutional protections. It ensures that strict laws, such as the NDPS Act, do not lead to unjustified and extended pre-trial detention. This balance preserves individual rights while respecting statutory authority.

The ruling establishes a precedent for lower courts to prioritize the impact of trial delays on the accused's fundamental rights. This precedent may lead to a more liberal approach to granting bail in cases of excessive delays.

The judgment highlights the significance of timely justice. It emphasizes that prolonged incarceration without trial is both unjust and unconstitutional. This emphasis underscores the need for efficient and equitable dispensation of justice.

The Supreme Court's groundbreaking decision underscores the judiciary's unwavering commitment to protecting fundamental rights by dismantling the notion that lengthy incarcerations before trial are permissible under the NDPS Act's harsh provisions. This decision establishes a precedent that upholds the principles of timely justice and constitutional safeguards, recognizing that the prolonged deprivation of liberty due to protracted delays cannot be tolerated. It represents a crucial step in harmonizing the NDPS Act's stringent measures with the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, ensuring that justice is not only administered but also perceived as being delivered in a swift and impartial manner.

Written By: Md.Imran Wahab, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565

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