Life imprisonment in Pakistan

Why do we imprison a convict? It is often argued that it is done for prevention of crime and offender’s rehabilitation. Prevention by putting him behind bars is to ensure that the crime may not recur. Being human, we believe in reformation and taking back offenders into the mainstream; that is why rehabilitation is another main factor of imprisonment. It is important that the punishment must be proportional to the crime, as it would be unfair to shoot sparrows with a cannon. It must be for rehabilitation of offenders and prevention of crime. But we cannot close our eyes from retribution.

Vengeance is the supreme reason that urges human beings to go to a court. What if that remains alive in them? Eventually, they could take law in their hands and could likely commit another crime for the sake of justice or vengeance. This often happens in Pakistan. That is because courts consider that life imprisonment under section 57 of the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 (hereinafter referred to as PPC) means, imprisonment for twenty-five years. But this is not true. Life imprisonment stands for “imprisonment for the whole of the remaining of convicted person’s natural life”, and not twenty-five years.

Life imprisonment stands for “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 the 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 a simple reading of the same, it seems that in reckoning, life imprisonment is twenty-five years. But a law is always interpreted in its subject to the context, keeping in due regard to the object and the purpose of the statute. While interpreting, one may get help from precedents. Here two sister jurisdictions will be examined: Pakistan and India.

In Pakistan, a full member bench judgement in Dilawar Hussain’s case of 2013 decided that the term life imprisonment means twenty-five years imprisonment. They referred to section 57 of the PPC and rule 140 of the Pakistan Prison rules, 1978 (hereinafter referred to as prison rules). In another case, the Supreme Court ruled that the provincial government is empowered under section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 (hereinafter referred as CrPC) read with prison rules, to remit or commute the sentence of a convict, subject to the condition that he has undergone fifteen years of imprisonment. In Pakistan, the concept is that after spending fifteen years behind 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.

In India, the situation is altogether different in reckoning of 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.” It further ruled in paragraph eight: “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.”

There is no cavil in this proposition that the meaning of life imprisonment is, unless properly remitted by the respective government, imprisonment for the entire life of the convict. To resolve this issue, the Gopal Vinayak Godse’s case and the Kishori Lalcase of the Privy Council were mentioned many times.

It can be summarised as: the prison rules cannot override the statute, and that the sentence of imprisonment for life was always meant to be imprisonment for the convict’s natural life. If it had not been that it would be meaningless to place it separately as a punishment for murder under section 302 (b) and (c) of the PPC. The redundancy is alien to the statutory provisions. Although in practice, due to remission and commutation of sentences, it amounts to incarceration for a period of fourteen or 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.” It is because the theory of retribution relieves victims from the sentiment of vengeance, with enforcement of imprisonment till the last breath of a convict’s life.

The writer is an advocate

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