21 Dec 2009

Life imprisonment means imprisonment for life: Supreme Court

The answer to the question, 'whether life imprisonment means one for life' seems to have no bearing on the series of cases which are raised before the Courts time and again. Even though convicted for life, more often than not most convicts seek the garb of the provisions of Code of Criminal Procedure to argue that they be released after 14 years of punishment. Even though the law to this regard is settled, there seems to be a flurry of widely publicized trial convicts who raise this legal plea.

The issue arises due to Chapter 32(E) of the Code of Criminal Procedure which deals with the power of the Government relating to 'Suspension, Remission and Commutation of sentences'. The two relevant provisions of the enactment in this regard, Section 433 and 433A provide that;

433. Power to commute sentence: The appropriate Government may, without the consent of the person-sentenced commute-
(a) A sentence of death, for any other punishment provided by the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860);
(b) A sentence of imprisonment for life, for imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years or for fine;
(c) A sentence of rigorous imprisonment for simple imprisonment for any term to which that person might have been sentenced, or for fine;
(d) A sentence of simple imprisonment, for fine.
433A. Restriction on powers of remission or commutation in certain cases: Notwithstanding anything contained in section 432, where a sentence of imprisonment for life is imposed on conviction of a person for an offence for which death is one of the punishment provided by laws or where a sentence of death imposed on a person has been commuted under section 433 into one of imprisonment for life, such person shall not be released from prison unless he had served at least fourteen years of imprisonment.
It is on the basis of these provisions more often than not most convicts are able to get their sentence for life commuted upto 14 years. It is thus (though wrongly) also said that a sentence for life means a sentence of 14 years. The correct law is, however, otherwise. The Supreme Court in 2005 itself declared that a sentence of life imprisonment means imprisonment for life.

In a petition filed by a convict (who had served 21 years imprisonment) it was argued that he be released. He even argued that his further detention was illegal and he compensated for having been imprisoned too long. The Supreme Court, in no less categorical terms, set aside the plea and declared the law as under;
The Prisons' Rules are made under the Prisons Act and the Prisons Act by itself does not confer any authority or power to commute or remit sentence. It only provides for the regulation of the prisons and for the terms of the prisoners confined therein. Therefore, the West Bengal Correctional Services Act or the West Bengal Jail Code do not confer any special right on the petitioner herein. 
In Godse's case (supra), the Constitution Bench of this Court held that the sentence of imprisonment for life is not for any definite period and the imprisonment for life must, prima facie, be treated as imprisonment for the whole of the remaining period of the convict person's natural life. It was also held in paragraph 5 as follows:

" ..It does not say that transportation for life shall be deemed to be transportation for twenty years for all purposes; nor does the amended section which substitutes the words "imprisonment for life" for "transportation for life" enable the drawing of any such all-embracing fiction. A sentence of transportation for life or imprisonment for life must prime facie be treated as transportation or imprisonment for the whole of the remaining period of the convicted person's natural life."
Summarising the decision, it was held in para 8 as under:
"Briefly stated the legal position is this : Before Act XXVI of 1955 a sentence of transportation for life could be undergone by a prisoner by way of rigorous imprisonment for life in a designated prison in India. After the said Act, such a convict shall be dealt with in the same manner as one sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for the same term. Unless the said sentence is commuted or remitted by appropriate authority under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code or the Code of Criminal Procedure, a prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment is bound in law to serve the life term in prison. The rules framed under the Prisons Act enable such a prisoner to earn remissions ordinary, special and State and the said remissions will be given credit towards his term of imprisonment. For the purpose of working out the remissions the sentence of transportation for life is ordinarily equated with a definite period, but it is only for that particular purpose and not for any other purpose. As the sentence of transportation for life or its prison equivalent, the life imprisonment, is one of indefinite duration, the remissions so earned do not in practice help such a convict as it is not possible to predicate the time of his death. That is why the rules provide for a procedure to enable the appropriate Government to remit the sentence under S. 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure on a consideration of the relevant factors, including the period of remissions earned. The question of remission is exclusively within the province of the appropriate Government; and in this case it is admitted that, though the appropriate Government made certain remissions under S. 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, it did not remit the entire sentence. We, therefore, hold that the petitioner has not yet acquired any right to release."
We are bound by the above dicta laid down by the Constitution Bench and we hold that life imprisonment is not equivalent to imprisonment for fourteen years or for twenty years as contended by the petitioner.

Have a look at the decision

In fact it is in the light of this legal position (that even though the law provides for imprisonment for the full life-time of the law the Government may commute the sentence after 14 or 20 years), that the Supreme Court has begun a new trend of imposing mandatory sentences. For example, in this recent decision the Supreme Court imposed a sentence of 35 years on the accused observing thus;

21. That leaves us with a question as to what sentence should be passed. Ordinarily, it would be the imprisonment for life. However, that would be no punishment to the appellant/accused, as he is already under the shadow of sentence of imprisonment for life, though he has been bailed out by the High Court. Under the circumstance, in our opinion, it will be better to take the course taken by this Court in the case of Swamy Shraddananda @ Murly Manohar Mishra v. State of Karnataka [AIR 2008 SC 3040], where the Court referred to the hiatus between the death sentence on one part and the life imprisonment, which actually might come to 14 years' imprisonment. In that case, the Court observed that the convict must not be released from the prison for rest of his life or for the actual term, as specified in the order, as the case may be. We do not propose to send the appellant/accused for the rest of his life; however, we observe that the life imprisonment in case of the appellant/accused shall not be less than 35 years of actual jail sentence, meaning thereby, the appellant/accused would have to remain in jail for minimum 35 years.
The Supreme Court in another recent case has traced the history of how the concept of life imprisonment came to be one (wrongfully) being understood as one confined to 14 years of actual punishment. The decision delineates the same as under;
6. In Dalbir Singh and others vs. State of Punjab [(1979) 3 SCC 745], three Judges of this Court had occasion to consider the awarding of death penalty. Following the decision in the case of Rajendra Prasad vs. State of U.P. [(1979) 3 SCC 646], V.R. Krishna Iyer and D.A. Desai, JJ, observed that life imprisonment strictly means imprisonment for the whole of the man's life, but in practice amounts to incarceration for a period between 10 and 14 years which may, at the option of the convicting court, be subject to the condition that the sentence of imprisonment shall last as long as life lasts where there are exceptional indications of murderous recidivism and the community cannot run the risk of the convict being at large.
7. In State of Punjab and others vs. Joginder Singh and others [(1990) 2 SCC 661], which was heard along with three other matters, this Court was called upon to consider the relevant provisions of the Manual for Superintendence and Management of Jails in Punjab. Considering the grant of remissions and commutations granted in exercise of power under Sections 432 and 433 Cr.P.C., this Court held that such schemes have been introduced to ensure prison discipline and good behaviour and not to upset sentences. If the sentence is of imprisonment for life, ordinarily the convict has to pass the remainder of his life in person, but for remission and commutations granted in exercise of the aforesaid powers. Even in such cases, Section 433-A of the Code or the executive instructions of 1976 do not insist that the convict pass the remainder of his life in prison but merely insists that he shall have served time for at least 14 years. 
8. The next decision to which we may refer in this regard is that of the Constitution Bench in the celebrated case of Maru Ram vs. Union of India & Ors. {(1981) 1 SCC 107}, which was a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution and was heard along with several other writ petitions on the same issue, namely, the length of imprisonment of a convict in respect of an offence carrying a life sentence, in view of the amended provisions of Section 433-A Cr.P.C., which was introduced into the Code by the Amendment Act of 1978. By the said Amendment, a full 14 year term of imprisonment was made mandatory for prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment and those who were sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment under Section 433 Cr.P.C. The Constitution Bench held that Section 302 IPC or other like offence fixes the sentence to be life imprisonment and 14 years' imprisonment under Section 433A is never heavier than the life term. Remission vests no right to release when sentence is life imprisonment. No greater punishment is inflicted by Section 433A than the law applicable to the crime. Nor is there any vested right to remission cancelled by compulsory 14 year jail life since a life sentence is a sentence for life. The Constitution Bench repelled the challenge to the vires of Section 433A and, inter alia, affirmed its supremacy over the remission rules and short sentencing statement made by the various States. Following Godse's case (supra), the Constitution Bench held that imprisonment for life lasts until the last breath and whatever the length of remissions earned, the prisoner can claim release only if the remaining sentence is remitted by the Government. One other important observation that was made is that Section 433A does not forbid parole or other release within the 14 year span.
9. In the case of Ashok Kumar vs. Union of India [(1991) 3 SCC 498], together with the interpretation of Section 433-A of the Code, a Three Judge Bench of this Court also had occasion to consider the provisions of Sections 45 and 57 of the Indian Penal Code. The Hon'ble Judges were of the view that the provisions of Section 57 were to be reckoned as 20 years only for the purpose of working out the fraction of the terms of imprisonment the convict had already undergone. Their Lordships also held that the expression "imprisonment for life" would have to be read in the context of Section 45 IPC. Read in the light of Section 45, the aforesaid expression would ordinarily mean imprisonment for the full or complete span of life. In that context it was mentioned in Godse's case (supra) that Section 57 of the Indian Penal Code has no real bearing on the question raised and only for the purpose of calculating fractions of terms of punishment, the Section provides that transportation for life shall be for 20 years for all purposes. 
10. The question of premature release cropped up in the case of Laxman Naskar vs. Union of India [(2000) 2 SCC 595], which was heard with several other writ petitions. It was held that although there was no right of premature release in the convict when rules or guidelines have been framed in that behalf, the convict has a right to have his case put up before the prison authorities for considering the same in exercise of powers under Article 161 in accordance with those rules, schemes or guidelines. In that case, Their Lordships were dealing with a situation where all the "life convicts" were claiming premature release under the relevant provisions of the West Bengal Jail Code. Their Lordships were not only dealing with Articles 161, 21 and 32 of the Constitution, but even the provisions of paragraphs 591(4) and 591(2) of the West Bengal Jail Code. Applying the provisions of the West Bengal Jail Code relating to grant of premature release, this Court was of the view that all the life convicts in the said case had completed continued detention of 20 years including remission earned. On receipt of the said report, it was observed that life sentence is nothing less than life-long imprisonment and by earning remissions a life convict could not pray for premature release before completing 20 years of imprisonment, including remission earned. Having held as above, this Court went on further to hold that if according to the Government policy/ instructions in force at the relevant time the life convict had already undergone the sentence for the period mentioned in the policy/instructions, then the only right which a life convict could be said to have acquired is the right to have his case put up by the prison authorities in time before the authorities concerned for exercise of power under Article 161 of the Constitution. That will have to be done consistent with the legal position and the Government policies/instructions prevalent at that time.
11. In the case of Subash Chander vs. Krishan Lal and others [(2001) 4 SCC 458], along with the awarding of the death sentence, the period of imprisonment in case of a life sentence or a death sentence commuted to a life sentence also came to be considered. It was observed that when two views were possible about the quantum of sentence, the view which favoured the grant of life in comparison with death is generally accepted for the exercise of the powers by the High Court in commuting the death sentence. It was further observed that a "life imprisonment" means imprisonment for whole of the remaining period of the convicted person's natural life, unless the appropriate Government chose to exercise its discretion to remit either the whole or a part of the sentence under Section 401 Cr.P.C.
12. A slightly different view was expressed by this Court in the case of Shri Bhagwan vs. State of Rajasthan [(2001) 6 SCC 296]. This Court, after considering the facts and circumstances of the case, reiterated that ordinarily "imprisonment for life" means sentence of imprisonment for whole of the remaining period of the convicted person's natural life and that the rules framed under the Prisons Rules do not substitute a lesser sentence for a sentence for life.
13. The debate as to what would constitute "life imprisonment" once again surfaced in the case in the case of Mohd. Munna vs. Union of India [(2005) 7 SCC 417], which was disposed of along with another writ petition filed by one Kartick Biswas, where it was reiterated that life imprisonment was not equivalent to imprisonment for 14 years or 20 years. Life imprisonment means imprisonment for the whole of the remaining period of the convicted person's natural life. This Court observed that there was no provision either in the Indian Penal Code or in the Criminal Procedure Code, whereby life imprisonment could be treated as either 14 years or 20 years without there being a formal remission by the appropriate Government. The contention that having regard to the provisions of Section 57 of the Code of Criminal Procedure a prisoner was entitled to be released on completing 20 years of imprisonment under the West Bengal Correctional Services Act, 1992, and the West Bengal Jail Code, was rejected following the decision in Godse's case (supra).
14. In a more recent case, Swamy Shraddananda vs. State of Karnataka [(2008) 13 SCC 767], this Court was called upon to consider as to what would constitute "life imprisonment" in a case where death sentence was commuted to life sentence. Swamy Shraddananda was convicted under Section 302 and 201 IPC and was sentenced to death for the offence under Section 302 IPC. In appeal the High Court affirmed the conviction and the death sentence awarded to the appellant by the learned 25th City Sessions Judge, Bangalore City and accepted the reference made by the trial Court without any modification in the conviction or sentence. The matter then travelled to this Court and again came up for disposal before a Bench of three Judges. While one of the learned Judges took the view that the appellant deserved nothing but death, the others made it clear that life imprisonment, rather than death, would serve the ends of justice. But the Hon'ble Judges also made it clear that the appellant would not be released from prison till the end of his life. Having examined various decisions on the point which have also been referred to hereinabove, the Hon'ble Judges substituted the death sentence given to the appellant by the Trial Court and confirmed by the High Court with imprisonment for life with a direction that the convict would not be released from prison for the rest of his life.
15. What ultimately emerges from all the aforesaid decisions is that life imprisonment is not to be interpreted as being imprisonment for the whole of a convict's natural life within the scope of Section 45 of the aforesaid Code. The decision in Swamy Shraddananda's case (supra) was taken in the special facts of that case where on account of a very brutal murder, the appellant had been sentenced to death by the Trial Court and the reference had been accepted by the High Court. However, while agreeing with the conviction and confirming the same, the Hon'ble Judges were of the view that however heinous the crime may have been, it did not come within the definition of "rarest of rare cases" so as to merit a death sentence. Nevertheless, having regard to the nature of the offence, Their Lordships were of the view that in the facts of the case the claim of the petitioner for premature release after a minimum incarceration for a period of 14 years, as envisaged under Section 433-A Cr.P.C., could not be acceded to, since the sentence of death had been stepped down to that of life imprisonment, which was a lesser punishment.
16. On a conjoint reading of Sections 45 and 47 of the Indian Penal Code and Sections 432, 433 and 433A Cr.P.C., it is now well established that a convict awarded life sentence has to undergo imprisonment for at least 14 years. While Sections 432 and 433 empowers the appropriate Government to suspend, remit or commute sentences, including a sentence of death and life imprisonment, a fetter has been imposed by the legislature on such powers by the introduction of Section 433A into the Code of Criminal Procedure by the Amending Act of 1978, which came into effect on and from 18th December, 1978. By virtue of the nonobstante clause used in Section 433A, the minimum term of imprisonment in respect of an offence where death is one of the punishments provided by laws or where a death sentence has been commuted to life sentence, has been prescribed as 14 years. In the various decisions rendered after the decision in Godse's case (supra), "imprisonment for life" has been repeatedly held to mean imprisonment for the natural life term of a convict, though the actual period of imprisonment may stand reduced on account of remissions earned. But in no case, with the possible exception of the powers vested in the President under Article 72 of the Constitution and the power vested in the Governor under Article 161 of the Constitution, even with remissions earned, can a sentence of imprisonment for life be reduced to below 14 years. It is thereafter left to the discretion of the concerned authorities to determine the actual length of imprisonment having regard to the gravity and intensity of the offence.
Have a look at the decision.


Ramachandran Ramasamy said...

thanks mr. Tarun for this vALUABLE INPUT...KEEP POSTING...

Preceptor said...

Thank you...very informative.