New Delhi, Sept. 12: Bengal could pave the way for the rest of the country in deciding whether life term means 14 years behind bars or “life in jail till death”.
The Supreme Court today gave the Bengal government four weeks to reply to a batch of 23 petitions from life convicts who have spent more than 14 years in the state’s prisons and sought release on the basis of an earlier apex court judgment. The 1981 verdict decided that life sentence was 14 years.
Senior counsel Balwant Singh Malik, who appeared for the convicts, told a division bench of Justices H.K. Sema and B.N. Srikrishna that the petitioners should be released first and then a larger bench ' preferably a Constitution bench ' could settle the issue.
Earlier, on Malik’s contention, a bench of Justices Y.K. Sabharwal and C.K. Thakker had issued notices to Bengal on a plea that life convicts should be released after 14 years.
The same plea ' for freedom after 14 years for life convicts throughout the country ' is being heard by a different bench of Justices S.N. Variava and Sema following a PIL by apex court advocate M.K. Balakrishnan.
Malik, the senior counsel for over 27 petitioners from different states, mainly from Bengal and then from Orissa and Haryana, said different benches might give differing verdicts. So all the petitions should be clubbed and posted before a Constitution bench for determining the length of a life sentence ' whether it is for 14, 18 or 20 years or for life.
“As such, different benches are giving different verdicts and even after a verdict that life means life by a bench, other benches are granting the relief after 14 years. However, the 1981 Maru Ram case was decided by a Constitution bench presided by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer and hence this bench would overrule any contradictory verdict,” Malik said.
“In that case, it was decided that life sentence means 14 years,” added the former jail superintendent in Punjab who has done research on life sentences abroad and in India and published several articles.
Today’s petition related to life convict Kailash Chand Gupta, who is in Dum Dum Central Jail for murdering his wife. Malik said under Rule 591(1-4) of the West Bengal Jail Code, read with Article 161 of the Constitution, Gupta has become eligible for release.
Under Article 161, the governor has the power to grant pardons and suspend, remit or commute sentences in criminal cases, especially in the cases of those serving life terms.
Balakrishnan’s PIL is scheduled to be heard on September 20. The bench has already issued notices to the states, Union territories and the Centre and the matter will be taken up for “final disposal”.
The PIL gives a list of life convicts in different states. Among them are 36 who have already served 14 years in Uttar Pradesh and 29 in Bengal.
The PIL says the average period served by life convicts in Poland is 25 years, in Italy 21 years, in France 17 to 18 years, in the UK 14.3 years and in Sweden nine years. In India, the law does not permit the government to remit the sentence of a life convict before 14 years.
Balakrishnan said even life convicts had the fundamental right to life under Article 21 which should be “liberally interpreted” to release those who have served 14 years.