What does it mean to get a life sentence? Is it the commonly understood ‘25 years behind bars’? Can a ‘lifer’ be released as a matter of right after 25 years? Unpacking what the sentence entails
Recent remarks by the Chief Justice of Pakistan in the course of a case proceeding have highlighted some confusion in our criminal justice system. It is commonly understood, both by lawyers and non-lawyers, that the sentence of imprisonment for life under Pakistan Penal Code means imprisonment for 25 years. This belief has its basis in two things: one, the literal reading of Section 57 of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 (PPC), and second, the common practice of provincial governments of not asserting a right to keep imprisoned a convict sentenced to imprisonment for life after he has undergone 25 years of confinement. In this context, there are two arguable questions; first, what is the length of imprisonment for life sentence? Is it 25 years or not? Second, whether a prisoner sentenced to imprisonment for life can be released as a matter of right after serving 25 years or not?
The imprisonment-for-life sentence is commonly considered to mean 25 years of imprisonment due to 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 25 years.” This section however does not define the term ‘imprisonment for life.’ The PPC provides two kinds of sentences of imprisonment, one of specific term such as seven, ten or fourteen years, etc, and the other an imprisonment ‘for life’ which is without any specification of term as it would be impossible to anticipate the life span of person. Interestingly, the section itself lays out its objective when it says that ‘in calculating fractions of terms of punishment’ imprisonment for life will be ‘reckoned’ as 25 years. Hence this ‘reckoning’ is done to calculate the ‘fractions of terms of punishment’ and it is only under Chapter 8 of the Pakistan Prison Rules (PPR) of 1978 that a sentence is required to be divided into fractions.
The purpose is to lay out a system of earning and granting remissions to the prisoners for their good behaviour and service during their imprisonment. The application of remission decreases the sentence of imprisonment making prisoners eligible for release when a portion of their sentence ordinarily ‘not exceeding one-third of the whole sentence has yet to run’ (Rule 199, Pakistan Prison Rules, 1978) Here, the sentence has been divided into fractions. When a prisoner has undergone two-thirds of his awarded sentence, by way of ‘good conduct and industry’ he may earn himself a concession that he may be released even though one-third of his sentence is still remaining. It is for the purposes of remission that Section 57 corresponds, by declaring that when remissions and eligibility of release are to be calculated, the imprisonment for life will be reckoned as 25 years. It does not mean that imprisonment for life is 25 years.
Then there is some confusion regarding Section 55 of the PPC and Rule 217 (ii) of the PPR. Section 55 provides a power to the Executive to ‘commute’ the sentence of imprisonment for life an imprisonment for 14 years. On the other hand, Rule 217(ii) of the PPR provides that an imprisonment for life cannot be ‘remitted’ beyond 15 years of imprisonment, which means a life convict or ‘lifer’ (prisoner sentenced to imprisonment of life) will not become eligible for release unless he has served 15 years of the sentence. It is submitted that ‘commutation’ of a sentence is essentially different from ‘remission’ of a sentence: in commutation, a sentence is changed from one kind into another. Section 53 of the PPC provides different kinds of sentence and it presents imprisonment-for-life and imprisonment as two different sentences. The sentence of imprisonment is a sentence for a specific term. Therefore, by commuting sentence under Section 55, the Executive changes one kind of sentence into another kind i.e. ‘imprisonment for life’ is changed into ‘imprisonment for a term of 14 years’ as provided by the section. By applying rule 217(ii) of the PPR, the Executive does not change the kind of sentence, rather only the length of the sentence. Under this rule, the ‘lifer’ can only earn up to 10 years of remission and the Executive cannot give any more remission after that. Hence, the use of term ’25 years’ is only to calculate a life convict’s remission and consequently his eligibility for release.
The next question, of course, is whether a life convict has a right to be released after he has served 25 years imprisonment towards his imprisonment-for-life sentence? Or in other cases, if his sentence has been remitted to the maximum, then does he have a right to be released after he has undergone the minimum 15 years of imprisonment? A similar question was considered in Muhammad Hussain v. State (PLD 1968 Lahore 1) where Lahore High Court was considering whether a prisoner sentenced to transportation-for-life must be released after serving 20 years of imprisonment? The honourable court clarified that the ‘transportation-for-life means a sentence for the remaining span of the natural life of the convict.’ It further ruled that ‘there is no vested right for the life convict to be released’ when he has served the aggregate sentence mandated by the prison rules, which at that time was 14 years for the punishment of transportation-for-life. According to the court:
“..the case of a life convict shall be considered for a release under the provisions of Section 401 CrPC when such convict has completed an aggregate period of fourteen years, including remissions of all kinds. The rules cannot, however, be interpreted as meaning that after the expiry of fourteen years’ imprisonment the further detention of a life convict would be illegal.”
A clear analogy can be drawn from the above ruling. In 1972’s criminal law reforms, the sentence of transportation-for-life was changed into imprisonment-for-life and Section 57 was amended to mandate 25 years as minimum jail term for a life convict. Hence, it will be incorrect to consider imprisonment for life as 25 years. After serving 25 years, or 15 years if a prisoner has earned full remission of his sentence, the life convict or lifer, only gains a right to be considered for release by the provincial government under Section 401 CrPC. Whether he would be released or not remains within the discretion of provincial government. The procedure laid out in Section 401 is detailed and instructive in this regard. Section 401(3) clearly lays out that where a convict so released by the provincial government, violates any condition of his release, he may be arrested without warrant and will be made to undergo the remaining length of this unserved sentence, which for life convict will be the rest of his life.