Debating Life Sentence

Dr Zia Ullah Ranjah

Dr Zia Ullah Ranjah

How long is a life sentence?
Supreme Court of Pakistan's building stands in Islamabad, Pakistan

Amidst a considerable confusion in the public about the duration of a life sentence, the Supreme Court of Pakistan (‘SC’) is examining whether life sentence corresponds to a maximum imprisonment of twenty-five years when the Pakistan Penal Code (‘PPC’) does not specify any term of imprisonment in case of a life sentence? This question is extremely important. Any answer to this question would have a far-reaching impact on our criminal justice system and in our society. The learned legal fraternity needs to engage and contribute in this jurisprudential debate.

While answering the above question, the Advocate General Punjab (‘AGP’) submitted before a seven-member bench of the SC that a life sentence is an imprisonment for the natural life of a convict. The AGP states that the misconception as to the duration of life sentence is the outcome of a misunderstanding of Section 57 of the PPC, which provides that, “In calculating fractions of terms of punishment, imprisonment for life shall be reckoned as equivalent to imprisonment for twenty-five years”. The AGP stresses that Section 57 of the PPC has no bearing on the ‘meaning of life imprisonment’ and it is only concerned with ‘calculation of fractions of terms of punishment’ in other offences. He essentially argues that life sentence is ‘reckoned as equivalent to twenty-five years’ and ‘not deemed as twenty-five years.’

The AGP further stated that although Section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (‘CrPC’), empowers the government to remit the sentence of life convict, yet a convict cannot claim remission in the sentence as a matter of right. The AGP reiterated that the government can keep life convicts in jail for the remainder of their life. With due respect, the learned AGP’s argument may not sustain as per the existing terms of the law.

A brief reading of Section 57 of the PPC shows that life imprisonment is calculated as equivalent to twenty-five years. Section 55 of the PPC allows the executive to commute the life sentence to fourteen years. Section 401 of the CrPC also authorizes the provincial government to remit the life sentence. Given these provisions, a life sentence may not be necessarily deemed as more than twenty-five years or for the remainder of convict’s life.

The principals of statutory interpretation dictate that a statute must be construed as a whole and that words that are reasonably capable of only one meaning must be given that meaning (the literal rule); that ordinary words must be given their ordinary meanings unless absurdity would result (the golden rule). If the relevant provisions of the PPC and the CrPC are construed as per these rules of interpretation, a life sentence, at maximum, can extend to twenty-five years.

Even if it is assumed (for the sake of legal argument), that the PPC is silent as to the duration of a life sentence, the honorable SC, it is argued, may neither specify the duration of life sentence nor can amend any provisions of the PPC and the CrPC. If it is concluded that the PPC is silent or vague as to the duration of a life sentence, the SC could recommend to the legislature to make appropriate amendments, as our constitution incorporates the theory of separation of powers. Any legislation by the SC in this regard would challenge the constitutional distribution of power between the legislature and the judiciary.

It may be appreciated that the similar issue of life sentence arose in India. The Criminal Law Amendment Acts of 2013 and 2018, made several offences in the Indian Penal Code (‘IPC’) punishable by imprisonment for life, extending to the remainder of convict’s natural life.  In Union of India V Sriharan (2016) the SC further ruled that courts could place a sentence beyond the scope of remission for a fixed period. The IPC amendments and the SC judgement seems to have made the issue of life sentence more complicated in India. It may be argued that it has added confusion as to the exact term of a life sentence and has multiplied criminal litigation.

In our criminal justice system, the increased reliance on life imprisonment to the remainder of convict’s life may also exacerbate the problems of the existing criminal justice system. Pakistan’s criminal justice system is ranked at 81 (out of 113) as per the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index (2017-18). In this system, there could be flaws in the investigation, prosecution and conviction. In Asia Bibi case, for example, she was awarded death penalty based on a false FIR as well as concocted evidence compelling the SC to observe that the courts below failed to advert to contradictions and some ‘downright falsehood’ in the evidence. In another case, the SC acquitted Wajih-ul-Hassan after he had spent about nineteen years in prison. The SC noted that “There cannot be a fair trial, which is itself the primary purpose of criminal jurisprudence if the judges have not been able to elucidate the rudimentary concept of the standard of proof that prosecution must meet to obtain a conviction.”  It may be argued that Asia Bibi and Hassan were falsely prosecuted in the absence of any concrete proof. Can there be any compensation for such like convictions? Probably, not.

It is argued that life and liberty are the most valuable human rights that are protected under the constitution. Thus, these rights cannot be taken away except under law. While examining the question of a life sentence, the SC may consider two important legal questions: Can a life sentence be construed more than twenty-five years given the existing law and the rules of statutory interpretation? Can a life sentence for the remaining period of convict’s life be justified considering the flaws of our criminal justice system? The law does not apply in vacuum but operates in a specific context. It may be argued that awarding life long sentence to convicts (without reforming our criminal justice system) appears to be harsh in the absence of effective compensation mechanism for innocent/acquitted accused and their families.

In Pakistan, life sentence has become a complex patchwork of judicial and executive orders. This vagueness and inconsistency appear to have increased miseries of the life convicts and their families. Thus, endorsing the duration of a life sentence beyond twenty-five years may offend the relevant provisions of the PPC and the CrPC and the cannons of statutory interpretation.  It may further strengthen the perception that our criminal justice system believes more in retribution than the reformation of the convicts. It is high time that the honorable SC provides guidance on this question of public importance. As the question remains open, the legal fraternity should thoroughly debate on this issue and properly assist the SC. It would help to produce clear and coherent jurisprudence on the question of the duration of a life sentence.

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2 thoughts on “Debating Life Sentence”

  1. Advocate Nisar Ahmed

    First of all, let me thank you for launching this panel. Secondly, I respect the opinion rendered by the writer with disagreement on some fundamental points.
    Section 53, 57 and 302 of PPC are kind of a maze and a classic example of poor draftsmanship. Section 53 PPC lists kinds of punishment, section 57 clarifies calculation of fraction of punishment and section 302 provides for punishment of Qatal-i-Amad. This trio, when read together, results into doubts as to the length of “imprisonment for life”. Sources of doubts are however a great revenue for a lawyer to squeeze benefit out of a proposition which otherwise does not carry any good prospect of success. There are three propositions in front of us: (1) imprisonment for life and imprisonment for 25 years are two separate and distinct kinds of punishment; (2) both are interchangeable; and (3) imprisonment for life and imprisonment for 25 years are two separate and distinct punishment in substance, however, length of imprisonment for life is 25 years.
    I do not intend to discuss about these three propositions in detail. I would however try to discuss that doubt. Section 53 does not define these punishments. Section 57 does leave an impression that maximum length of imprisonment for life is 25 years. However, section 302(b) and (c) are the main sources of doubt. Section 302(b) provides for imprisonment for life as tazir, having regards to the facts and circumstances of the case, if the proof in either of the forms of section 304 is not available and section 302(c) supplies imprisonment of either description which may extend to 25 years where as per injunctions of Islam punishment of Qisas is not applicable.
    The conditions for both the punishments are different and upon bare reading it would be clear that both punishments are different in substance and context (302(b) is in the form of tazir and 302(c) is applicable where Qisas is not applicable).
    Sadly, interpretation of statutes is the least developed area of law in Pakistan. The jurisprudence on this field is outdated. In solving this maze “glazebrook model” might be helpful. The Supreme Court has ample power to interpret the law on such points without having to refer the matter to the legislature for clarification through an amendment. However, I agree with the writer that the court may not be able to do it. Right to life and liberty is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution. Principle of legality says that any fundamental right of a citizen cannot be taken away by interpretation of a statute or any provision thereof but with a clear law passed by the legislature. It is up to the Supreme Court to decide. This is my humble opinion which open to discussion.
    Lastly, I would like to thank juris panel to take up such an important exercise. We do need to develop and update our jurisprudence on statutory interpretation and this task cannot be achieved without debates and discussions.
    Advocate Nisar Ahmed
    Juris Doctor
    [email protected]

    1. Thanks for participating in this jurisprudential discussion and pointing out the doubt as to the meaning and extent of a life imprisonment. The distinction made out in section 302(b) and 302(c) of PPC is helpful; however, Section 53 and 57 blur this distinction, again. Let’s keep this debate open for the learned legal fraternity.

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