Can Supreme Court impose life imprisonment without remission? : 8 April 2014

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court, which has become increasingly reluctant to uphold the death penalty even for those guilty of brutal multiple murders, had 7 years ago devised a method to balance the scales of justice by imposing life sentence without remission, meaning the convict would spend rest of his life in prison.

Award of life sentence without remission has raised a serious legal and Constitutional question – can the Supreme Court take away the Constitutionally conferred power on governments to remit sentence of a lifer after he/she has served 14 years in jail?

Noted legal expert Fali S Nariman sought an early adjudication of this question, which he had raised more than five years ago and still remains pending.

A bench of Chief Justice P Sathasivam and Justice Ranjan Gogoi agreed that the question needed to be referred to a five-judge Constitution bench and posted it for hearing on April 30.

On April 6, 2010, after hearing Nariman and Attorney General G E Vahanvati, the apex court had agreed to consider the question, but felt impeded by a three-judge bench judgment of July 22, 2008 in Swami Shraddananda case.

Swami Shraddananda was sentenced to death by a Karnataka trial court for murdering his wife, who was the rich granddaughter of former Dewan of Mysore. The high court upheld the sentence. On appeal, a two-judge bench of SC in 2007 gave a split verdict – Justice S B Sinha preferring life sentence without remission and Justice Markandeya Katju upholding death sentence.

In 2008, a three-judge bench of Justices B N Agrawal, G S Singhvi and Aftab Alam unanimously endorsed Justice Sinha’s view and said: “We accordingly substitute the death sentence given to the appellant by the trial court and confirmed by the High court by imprisonment for life and direct that he shall not be released from prison till the rest of his life.”

Appearing for writ petitioner Subash Singh Thakur, Nariman had questioned the Constitutionality of the apex court’s decision to order imprisonment of a person for life without remission, which is a power conferred on state and central governments by the Constitution.

While admitting the petition for hearing, a bench of Justices H S Bedi and R M Lodha had on April 6, 2010 said: “The basic issue raised by Nariman in this case is whether the direction of the Supreme Court in Shraddananda case that imprisonment of life would mean imprisonment till the rest of the life encroached on the legislative field as it ignored the provisions of Article 21 of the Constitution and Sections 53 to 55 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 433A of the criminal procedure code.”

Though the bench had four years ago referred the petition to the CJI for hearing by a larger bench, it had not been taken up for hearing. But, the apex court appeared careful in later cases, like the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case where it commuted the death penalty of three to life imprisonment with provision for remission of sentence.

It is another matter that, the Tamil Nadu government immediately proposed to release the three by remitting the rest of their life term on the ground that they had already served more than 20 years in prison. The SC had to step in on the Centre’s petition to stay their impending release.

Swami Shraddananda too has filed a petition posing the same question. Shraddananda was first lodged in Bangalore Central Prison and is now kept in Sagar Central Prison in Madhya Pradesh.

………………. ,TNN | Apr 8, 2014, 01.05 AM IST


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