SC allows State Power to free Lifers

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Thursday said if life sentence meant imprisoning a convict for the rest of his life, it would be better to award death penalty as confining him to prison till death would mean killing his hopes and aspiration to be counted as a member of society after release.

The apex court, which has awarded life term in five cases since 2001 specifying that the prisoners would be confined to jail for the rest of the life by barring the states from exercising remission powers, appeared to have developed second thoughts about the efficacy of such a sentence.

Arguing in the case of proposed release of convicts in Rajiv assassination case, solicitor general Ranjit Kumar pointed out that the apex court’s 1980 judgment in Maru Ram case had requested Parliament to weigh whether 14 years’ imprisonment was a just quantification of adequate punishment in cases where life imprisonment had been awarded. The 35-year-old judgment had said that life sentence meant imprisonment for life but had recognized the power of the states to grant remission under Section 432-433 of Criminal Procedure Code, 1973.

Before the SG left the arguments half-way, a five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice H L Dattu said: “Even after 35 years, Parliament has not thought about whether 14 years’ imprisonment was just punishment for a heinous crime. Is this the correct antidote? What purpose will be served if life sentence meant incarceration for entire life? This would mean a lifer will have no hope of ever coming out of prison. It will kill his hopes and aspiration to show good conduct during imprisonment to earn remission. It will wipe out his hope to be assimilated in the society after release. It is better to award death penalty. By showing good conduct, a lifer hopes to come out of jail after serving 14 years in jail. A prisoner could prove to be a fine human being. But, by directing that life sentence meant imprisonment for life, are we preventing the legislature and government from enacting a law on this issue.”

The apex court had since 2001, awarded life sentences in five cases specifying that the convict would not be released till death. These convicts are: Swamy Shraddananda (2008) for killing wife for property in Karnataka; Sebastian aka Chevithiyan (2010) for rape and murder of a two year-old in Kerala; Subhash Chandra (2001) for gunning down an entire family due to enmity; Jayawant D Suryarao (2001) for killing two policemen in Maharashtra; Subhash Chander (2001) after his counsel bartered his client’s freedom for entire life for commutation of death penalty.

Since 2001, the court had awarded prison terms varying between 20 to 25 years to 12 persons for gruesome murders. In eight cases since 2009, the apex court has specified 30 to 35 years’ jail term while sentencing the convicts to life imprisonment.