A group of former civil servants on Wednesday challenged the provisions of anti-terror law Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in the Supreme Court, Live Law reported.

The Act gives absolute power to the Centre, which can deem an activity as unlawful by way of an Official Gazette and declare it so. Under the law, investigative agencies get 180 days to probe a case, compared to 60 to 90 days under ordinary criminal law. This means an accused is eligible to apply for bail only after six months.

The petitioners, including retired police officer Julio Ribeiro and human rights activist Harsh Mander, submitted that the rate of prosecution in UAPA cases was extremely low. They added that those charged under the draconian law were jailed for long periods of time and some died during their imprisonment.

They told the court that the average rate of conviction in UAPA cases was 2.19%. “Prosecution under the UAPA is either initiated in bad faith or the quality of the evidence is not sufficient, bringing into question the entire process of independent review prior to grant of sanction,” the petitioners said, according to Live Law.

The former officers said that Section 43D(5) of the anti-terror law, which deals with restrictions on granting bail, was “arbitrarily used to quell dissent”.

The petitioners argued that even though UAPA is not a preventive detention law, it is being used as one. They said Section 43D(5) should be struck down to rein in the “the arbitrary exercise of power by the government”.

They also submitted that there was no definition of “terror” in UAPA. “Accusing a person of having committed a terrorist act, by saying the person ‘struck terror’ cannot be sustained, in the absence of a definition of the word terror,” the petitioners argued.

The former officers added: “The term ‘with intent to strike terror or likely to strike terror in the people’ is open-ended, ill-defined, and arbitrary. This arbitrariness and lack of precision in a definition, which affects the life and liberty of an individual, cannot be sustained, and is required to be struck down.”

After hearing the petition, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Centre.

India, over the last few years, has seen an increase in the number of UAPA cases against critics of the government. The law is meant to combat terrorism but it has been used against many other activities.

Most recently, the Tripura Police charged 102 social media accounts under the stringent law. These social media handles had posted about the anti-Muslim violence in the state.

In October, the police in Jammu and Kashmir charged the students and staff of two medical colleges under UAPA for reportedly cheering for Pakistan for winning a cricket match against India.

UAPA has also been used against activists and academicians accused of plotting caste violence in a village near Pune in 2018. Fourteen of them remain jailed in Maharashtra.

Tribal rights activist Stan Swamy, one of the accused in the case, died in custody in July this year after being repeatedly denied bail despite his frail health. Varavara Rao, an 81-year-old Telugu poet, was granted bail on medical grounds for six months in February.

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What is UAPA

The Act defines an unlawful activity as any action that is taken by an individual or association, “whether by committing an act or by words, either spoken or written or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise”, which disclaims, questions, disrupts or is intended to disrupt the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India, causes or is intended to cause disaffection against India and which is intended or supports any claim to bring about the cession or secession of a part of the territory of India.

The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was first passed on December 30, 1967. The original Act dealt with “unlawful” acts related to secession, the anti-terror provisions were added in 2004.

Till July 2019, an officer not below the rank of deputy superintendent of police or equivalent was competent to investigate the offences under UAPA. However, after Lok Sabha passed the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019, empowered officers with the rank of inspectors and above to do the same.