Judicial magistrates cannot extend deadlines given to investigating agencies to complete inquiries and file chargesheets in cases registered under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, the Supreme Court has ruled, Bar and Bench reported on Friday.

In an order on Tuesday, a bench comprising of Justices UU Lalit, Bela Trivedi and S Ravindra Bhat said that only special courts established under the National Investigation Agency Act, or in their absence sessions courts, have the power to extend deadlines.

The Supreme Court’s order was passed on a petition filed by four people charged under UAPA.

A court in Bhopal had denied them bail in 2014, after which they approached the Madhya Pradesh High Court. The petitioners sought bail on the grounds that the police had failed to file a chargesheet against them within the prescribed 90-day period, according to the Hindustan Times.

But, the High Court noted that the chief judicial magistrate in Bhopal had extended the deadline to file the chargesheet from 90 days to 180 days, and held that the petitioners could not be granted bail, PTI reported. The High Court upheld the magistrate’s verdict.

In this context, the Supreme Court bench noted: “In so far as time to complete investigation is concerned, a magistrate will not be within his jurisdiction to extend the time for filing of the charge sheet...such a power is non-existent.”

The Supreme Court also ruled that the petitioners were entitled to default bail in the case, Bar and Bench reported.

Criticism of UAPA

Lawyers in India have said the police were frequently using the anti-terrorism law as it enabled them to detain the accused for longer periods of time without a trial. Lawyers see this as part of police’s efforts to stifle peaceful dissent.

In August, the Centre had told the Parliament that 1,948 people were arrested under the UAPA In 2019 but only 34 were convicted.

Over the last couple of months, courts and Supreme Court judges – both former and sitting – have expressed their concerns over the inadvertent use of the legislation.

At an event in July, Supreme Court judge Justice DY Chandrachud, said that the law should not be used for “quelling dissent”.

In another session on the relevance of UAPA during the same month, former Supreme Court judge Justice Deepak Gupta had asserted that the law should not remain in its current form.

Former Supreme Court judge Justice Madan Lokur said that the courts, society and the State should consider the mental trauma afflicted on the families of activists, journalists and civil society members accused of sedition and UAPA.