Amidst considerable confusion in the public about the duration of a life sentence, Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa has raised an important question: why does life sentence correspond to maximum imprisonment of 25 years when the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) does not specify any term of imprisonment in case of a life sentence? Hearing a review petition of a murder case, the CJ said: “We will interpret the law correctly at an appropriate time. Once it happens, convicts will ask for a death sentence instead of life imprisonment.” These observations are extremely important and require engagement of the learned legal fraternity.
Answering the above question, the advocate general of the Punjab (AGP) has submitted before a seven-member bench of the SC that a life sentence is 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 25 years.” The AGP stresses that Section 57 of the PPC has no bearing on the “meaning [duration] 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 25 years” and not deemed as 25 years.
The AGP further stated that although Section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) empowers the government to remit the life sentence of a convict, yet the convict cannot claim remission in the sentence as a matter of right. The AGP reiterates that the government can keep life convicts in jail for the remainder of their lives. With due respect, the learned AGP’s argument does not sustain as per the existing terms of the law.
Pakistan’s criminal justice system is ranked at 81 (out of 113) as per the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index. In this system, witnesses may make false statements, the police may conduct a faulty investigation, prosecutors may handle the cases inefficiently and judges may ignore evidence
A brief reading of Section 57 of the PPC shows that life imprisonment is calculated as equivalent to 25 years. Section 55 of the PPC allows the executive even to commute the life sentence to 14 years. Section 401 of the CrPC also authorizes the provincial government to remit the life sentence. In view of these provisions, a life sentence may not be also necessarily deemed as more than 25 years.
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). The AGP’s arguments challenge the existing law as well as the principles of interpretation. If the above provisions of the PPC and the CrPC are construed as per the given rules of interpretation, a life sentence can extend from 14 to 25 years only.
CJ Khosa has been one of the best criminal lawyers and a fine jurist in Pakistan. Therefore, the lordship’s question as to the duration of a life sentence is extremely important; any answer to this question would have a far-reaching impact on our criminal jurisprudence. An ordinary citizen, however, may wonder how this important legal proposition escaped the attention of the legal fraternity so far. 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 honourable SC, I submit, can neither specify duration of life sentence nor can amend any provisions of the PPC and the CrPC as our constitution has defined mandate of 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 versus 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 judgment seems to have made the issue of life sentence more complicated in India. It has added confusion as to the exact term of a life sentence and has multiplied criminal litigation as well.
In our criminal justice system, increased reliance on life imprisonment, either by the courts or the parliament, 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, witnesses may make false statements, the police may conduct a faulty investigation, prosecutors may handle the cases inefficiently, and judges may ignore the evidence. For example, in Asia Bibi’s case, she was awarded death penalty based on a false FIR as well as concocted evidence compelling the CJP to observe that the courts below failed to advert to contradictions and some “downright falsehood” in the evidence.
Recently, the SC has acquitted Wajih-ul-Hassan after he spent about 19 years in prison. The CJ 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 simply means that Hassan was convicted in the absence of any solid proof.
These two cases reflect on the functioning of our criminal justice system. Are Asia Bibi and Wajih-ul-Hassan not victims of our justice system? Can there be adequate compensation for Asia and Hassan? If so, who should be made to pay that compensation? Should the honourable SC not fix some responsibility on those who have contributed to weakening our justice system?
Life and liberty are the most valuable human rights that cannot be taken away at the convenience of any justice system. Therefore, while considering the question of a life sentence, the SC may consider two important legal questions: Can a life sentence be construed more than 25 years given the existing law? Can a life sentence for the remaining period of convicts be justified considering the flaws of our criminal justice system?
In Pakistan, life sentence has become a complex patchwork of judicial and executive orders. Lack of consistent judicial and executive approach has only increased miseries of convicts and their families. An interpretation of life sentence endorsing its duration beyond 25 years would strengthen the perception that we believe more in retribution than the reformation of the convicts. It is time that the honourable SC provides jurisprudential guidance to the public and the legal fraternity. Otherwise, innocent people like Asia and Hassan will continue to suffer.
The writer is a lawyer