No legal basis for freeing life convicts after 14 years: court

J. Venkatesan

Life term means imprisonment of convict for the rest of his life

Remission allowed mechanically without assessing effect of early release of convict on society

Inability of system to deal with major crimes effectively leads to imbalance in end results

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday reiterated that life term awarded by a court meant imprisonment of the convict for the rest of his life.

“The deemed conversion of life imprisonment into one of fixed term by executive orders issued by the State governments apparently flies in the face of a long line of decisions by this court and we are afraid no provision of law was brought to our notice to sanction such a course. Life convicts are granted remission and released from prison on their completing a 14 year-term without any sound legal basis,” said a Bench consisting of Justices B.N. Agrawal, G.S. Singhvi and Aftab Alam.

“Disastrous course”

Writing the judgment, Justice Alam said: “Having regard to the nature of the crime, the court may strongly feel that a sentence of life imprisonment that subject to remission normally works out to a term of 14 years would be grossly disproportionate and inadequate. If the court’s option is limited to two punishments, one life imprisonment and the other death [penalty], the court may feel tempted to endorse the death penalty. Such a course would indeed be disastrous.”

Expanding options

The Bench said: “A far more just, reasonable and proper course would be to expand the options and to take over what, as a matter of fact, lawfully belongs to the court, i.e., the vast hiatus between 14 years’ imprisonment and death.

“It needs to be emphasised that the court would take recourse to the expanded option primarily because, in the facts of the case, the sentence of 14 years’ imprisonment would amount to no punishment at all.”

Life term for rest of life for ‘godman’

The Bench gave this ruling while awarding life imprisonment till the rest of his life to ‘godman’ Swami Shraddananda for murdering his wife Begum Shakereh Namazi of Mysore.

He has already served more than 14 years in prison.

Split verdict

The trial court slapped death sentence on the godman and the Karnataka High Court confirmed it.

On his appeal, a two-judge Bench of the apex court gave a split verdict. While Justice S.B. Sinha awarded life imprisonment, Justice Markandey Katju handed him death sentence. Hence the matter was referred to the three-judge Bench.

Remission is the rule

Disposing of the matter, it pointed out that releasing life convicts after 14 years was the situation in Karnataka and Bihar.

“One can safely assume that the position would be no better in other States.

“This court can also take judicial notice of the fact that remission is allowed in the most mechanical manner without any sociological or psychiatric appraisal of the convict and without any proper assessment of the effect of early release of a particular convict on society.

“The grant of remission is the rule and remission is denied, one may say, in the rarest of rare cases.”

The Bench said: “The inability of the criminal justice system to deal with all major crimes equally and effectively, and the want of uniformity in the sentencing process by the court lead to a marked imbalance in the end results.”

Untenable submission

The Bench said: “It was contended that giving punishment for an offence was indeed a judicial function but once the judgment was pronounced and punishment awarded the matter no longer remained in the hands of the court.

“The execution of the punishment passed into the hands of the executive and under the scheme of the statute the court had no control over the execution.

“In our view, the submission is wholly misconceived and untenable.”

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