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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Should Life Imprisonment really be life long?

Opinion |

Why do we imprison a convict? It is often argued that for prevention of crime and the offender’s rehabilitation. The prevention, by putting him behind the bars, so that the crime may not recur in society. And being humans, we believe in reformation and taking back offenders into the mainstream, so the rehabilitation is another main factor in imprisonment.

In Pakistan, the concept is that after spending fifteen years behind the bars, if the convict is not released on remission or commutation of sentence under section 401 CrPC read with Prison rules; then he will have to wait till the completion of twenty-five years in toto.

It is true that punishment must be proportional to a crime, as it would be unfair to shoot sparrows with cannons. And it must be for rehabilitation of offenders and prevention of crime. But we cannot close our eyes to retribution. Human vengeance is the supreme reason which urges them to come to court. What, if this emotion remains alive in them. Eventually, they will take law in their hands and would likely commit another crime for the sake of justice or vengeance.

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This often happens in Pakistan because courts consider that life imprisonment under section 57 of Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 (hereinafter referred as PPC) means imprisonment for twenty five years. But this is not true. Life imprisonment means “imprisonment for the whole of the remaining of convicted person’s natural life”, and not twenty five years.


The issue arises when one barely reads section 57 of PPC. It provides that, in calculating fractions of terms of punishment, imprisonment for life shall be reckoned as equivalent to imprisonment for twenty-five years. By bare reading of the same, it seems that in reckoning life imprisonment is twenty-five years. But the law is always interpreted in its subject to the context, keeping in due regard to the object and purpose of the statute. While interpreting, one may get help from precedents. And here two sister jurisdictions will be examined: Pakistan and India.

In Pakistan, a full member bench judgment in Dilawar Hussain’s case of 2013 decided that the term ‘life imprisonment’ means twenty-five years imprisonment. They referred section 57 of PPC and rule 140 of Pakistan Prison rules, 1978 (hereinafter referred as prison rules). In another case, Supreme Court ruled that the provincial government is empowered under section 401 of Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 (hereinafter referred as CrPC) read with prison rules, to remit or commute the sentence of convict, subject to the condition that he has undergone fifteen years of imprisonment. In Pakistan, the concept is that after spending fifteen years behind the bars, if the convict is not released on remission or commutation of sentence under section 401 CrPC read with Prison rules; then he will have to wait till the completion of twenty-five years in toto.

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In India, the situation is altogether different in reckoning the life imprisonment. Their chief case law on this issue is Gopal Vinayak Godse v State of Maharashtra. In this case the Supreme Court of India held that “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 convicted person’s natural life”. And further ruled in paragraph 8 of it, that “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 (sic predict) the time of his death. That is why the Rules provide for a procedure to enable the appropriate Government to remit the sentence under Section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure on a consideration of the relevant factors, including the period of remissions earned”.

Afterwards there is no cavil in this proposition in India that meaning of life imprisonment is, unless properly remitted by respective government, imprisonment for the entire life of convict. They many a times reiterate the Gopal Vinayak Godse’s case and in Kishori Lal’s case of Privy Council in resolving this issue.

At last, it can be summarized as, that the Prison rules cannot override the statute and the sentence of imprisonment for life was always meant to be imprisonment till the convict’s natural life. If it had not been, it would be meaningless to place it separately as a punishment for Qatl under section 302 (b) and (c) of PPC. And the redundancy is alien to statutory provisions. Although in practice, due to remission and commutation of sentences, it amounts to incarceration for a period of round-about fourteen, fifteen years or more.

But this also should 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”. Because the theory of retribution relieves the victims from vengeance, with enforcement of imprisonment till last breath of convict’s life.

Hafiz Muhammad Azeem is an advocate of the high court and teaches law. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.