Calcutta, Sept. 13: The state government today decided to join the legal battle to decide whether life sentence means 14 years behind bars or life in jail till death.
The decision follows the apex court's directive to the government yesterday to reply within four weeks to petitions by 23 life convicts who have spent 14 years in various prisons of the state and sought release.
'We have received the apex court's order and have decided to contest the case. Advocate Tarachand Sharma will move on behalf of the government,' home secretary Prasad Ranjan Roy said.
Roy, who also heads the advisory committee that examines whether a life convict can be released early, said there is a provision of periodically reviewing the cases of those who have completed 14 years in prison. But the Supreme Court, he added, has made it clear that life term means life in jail.
He said a division bench of the court had in a June 2001 judgment held that 'life sentence means imprisonment for life, not 14 years as it is followed in tradition'.
The verdict came in the case of Lakshman Laskar versus the state of Bengal.
According to jail officials, the case of a murder convict serving a life sentence is sent to the advisory committee after 14 years. 'But it is not mandatory for us to release them after completion of 14 years of imprisonment or more. In fact, the apex court's ruling says life sentence means confinement in jail till death,' said state judicial secretary N.K. Chakraborty, who is also a member of the committee.
Chakraborty and jail secretary P.K. Agrawal today visited Alipore Central Jail and Presidency Jail to enquire about the condition of some of the life convicts lodged there.
Records from various jails reveal that on an average, 25 life convicts are being released after 14 years or more every year on the basis of the committee's recommendations.
'But life convicts cannot claim premature release as their right to. It is solely the government's discretion to release a life convict prematurely or not,' said a deputy inspector-general, prisons.
Jail officials confirmed that the 23 life convicts who had moved the apex court are from Behrampore Central Jail, Alipore jail, Presidency and Dum Dum Central Jail. These jails house the maximum number of such convicts.
Over 1,500 life convicts are lodged in eight prisons across the state.
Life convicts today complained about the treatment they are getting in jail.
'We have been simply rotting in dingy cells for years. Everybody, starting from jail officials to the warders, is fleecing us every day. Diet and medicines allotted to us according to the jail code are being taken away by warders in connivance with a section of senior staff members,' said a life convict.
Convicted for life for murdering his wife, he has been lodged in the Alipore jail for nearly 16 years.
At least nine life convicts from the jail have moved the Supreme Court demanding early release.
The scene is worse in Presidency jail where some women life convicts are lodged. Jail sources said some of them have to sleep on dirty floors because there are no mattress.