What does it mean?
Imprisonment is, undeniably, one of those legal concepts that are misconstrued equally by the legal fraternity and the laymen. At the very initial point of this study, one should be clear that no specific term is prescribed for life imprisonment anywhere in the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 (hereinafter PPC). Life imprisonment, in a plain literal sense, means that the culprit shall remain behind bars for the rest of his life. Why should we supply any other meaning when the literal interpretation is not ambiguous at all! The notion that imprisonment for life is equivalent to twenty-five years of imprisonment or anything less is a misconception.
Different kinds of punishment provided in Section 53 of PPC
Section 53 of the PPC provides ten kinds of punishments for which offenders are liable under the provisions of the said code.
The table makes it amply clear that imprisonment for life and imprisonment (rigorous and simple) are categorized under different heads, i.e. seventh and eighth. This categorization makes both kinds of imprisonment different from each other with regard to their effects.
Let us try to simplify this a bit more with the help of examples.
When ‘imprisonment for life’ is a punishment provided for an offence (as is provided, besides death, under section 121 for the offense of ‘Waging or attempting to wage war or abetting waging war against Pakistan’) and the court awards imprisonment for life to the culprit, it falls under the seventh head of punishments provided in Section 53 referred to above. It does not mean that the culprit is sentenced to twenty-five years’ imprisonment or less by the court; rather it simply means that the culprit has been punished with imprisonment for life which is one of the punishments provided for the offense under section 121 of the PPC and the culprit will remain behind bars for the rest of his life, unless his sentence is commuted/suspended/remitted as per the law. On the other hand, under section 121-A of the PPC, the ‘Conspiracy to commit offenses punishable under 121” is punishable with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description which may extend to ten years and fine. In the case of section 121-A, the court has the discretion to award imprisonment for life or imprisonment (rigorous or simple) up to ten years which are clearly different from each other with regard to the term of detention.
Similarly, under the PPC, the offense of ‘Use of derogatory remarks, etc. in respect of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him)’ is punishable with either of the two kinds of punishments: Death or imprisonment for life. In such an offense, the court cannot award any other kind of sentence to the culprit; therefore, imprisonment for life cannot be reckoned as imprisonment for twenty-five years or anything less.
For more clarity of thought, another example is submitted. Just look at the text of Section 302 of the PPC copied below;
“Whoever commits qatl-e-amd shall, subject to the provisions of this Chapter, be:
a) punished with death as qisas;
b) punished with death or imprisonment for life as ta’zir having regard to the facts and circumstances of the case, if the proof in either of the forms specified in Section 304 is not available; or
c) punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to twenty-five years, where according to the injunctions of Islam the punishment of qisas is not applicable:
Provided that nothing in this clause shall apply to the offence of qatl-i-amd if committed in the name or on the pretext of honour and the same shall fall within the ambit of (a) and (b), as the case may be.”
It is clearly provided in section 302 of the PPCC that a court trying the offense of qatl-e-amd may, according to the circumstances of the case, punish the culprit with (i) Death as Qisas (which is the first kind of punishment under section 53), or with (ii) Death as Ta’zir (which is the fifth kind of punishment under section 53), or with (iii) imprisonment for life as Ta’zir (which is the seventh kind of punishment under section 53 read with Ta’zir), or with (iv) Imprisonment of either description (rigorous or simple) which may extend to twenty-five years (which is the eighth kind of punishment under section 53). Here, one may observe that imprisonment for life and imprisonment up to 25 years are differently categorized under clause (b) and clause (c) respectively of Section 302 of the PPC. The court is empowered to pass – besides other kinds of punishments provided under section 302 of the PPC – imprisonment for life or imprisonment up to twenty-five years. In the case in which imprisonment for life is awarded under Section 302(b) of the PPC, the culprit will remain behind bars for the rest of his life; and in the case, in which the culprit is sentenced under section 302(c) of the PPC, he will be released after the term for which he is punished which cannot be, in any case, exceeding 25 years of imprisonment (undoubtedly, the remissions under the Prison’s Rules will cause reduction in the term of imprisonment).
The Focal Point of Confusion – Section 57 of the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860
The people often misinterpret Section 57 of the PPC and that creates an illusion regarding the upper limit of detention period in imprisonment for life. Section 57 is reproduced for ready reference:
“57. Fractions of terms of punishment: In calculating fractions of terms of punishment, imprisonment for life shall be reckoned as equivalent to imprisonment for twenty-five years.”
According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, a fraction means a small part or amount of something. Meaning thereby; the fraction is a small part of something bigger. For a better understanding of the text of Section 57 supra, let us bifurcate it into two parts: (i) “in calculating fractions of terms of punishment” and (ii) “imprisonment for life shall be reckoned as equivalent to imprisonment for twenty-five years”. Now we must take a step ahead and find out in what cases fractions of terms of punishment are to be calculated. The offence of kidnapping or abducting any person for the purposes of extorting property, etc., is punishable with death or imprisonment for life, and the culprit shall also be liable to forfeiture of property under section 365-A of the PPC. Furthermore, an attempt to commit offense under section 365-A is also punishable under section 511 of the PPC; and in that case, punishment must be one-half of the term of imprisonment provided for the commission of offense. How will someone calculate one-half of the imprisonment for life? Here Section 57 supra will operate. It provides that for calculating fractions, as is required in this case, imprisonment for life shall be reckoned as equivalent to imprisonment for twenty-five years. Therefore, for attempt to commit kidnapping or abduction of any person for the purposes of extorting property, etc., punishment will be twelve and a half years.
There are so many other instances in the PPC where we need to calculate fractions of terms of punishment. For more examples, one may read Sections 116 and 119 of the said Code. A judgment of the Lahore High Court, Lahore (PLD 1959 Lah. 623) may also be consulted on this point. On the basis of the above study, it may be safely concluded that Section 57 of the PPC does not provide an upper cap for imprisonment for life rather it only provides the mechanism for calculating the fraction of punishment when the imprisonment for life is in question.
Commutation of Sentence of Imprisonment for Life – Section 55 of the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860
Life imprisonment is a punishment that is awarded for achieving a threefold purpose: deterrence, prevention and reformation. The purpose is deterrence when it is imprisonment for the entire remaining life. The purpose is the prevention of crime when it incapacitates the culprit from repeating the offense by keeping him behind bars. The purpose is the reformation of the culprit because the very concept of Jail is based on the ideology to reform the culprit and make him a law-abiding citizen. Therefore, for harvesting the fruit of reformation, the concept of commutation of sentences is recognized by our jurisprudence.
Section 55 of the PPC provides for commutation of sentence of imprisonment for life. For reading, said section is reproduced as under:
55. Commutation of sentence of imprisonment for life: In every case in which sentence of imprisonment for life shall have been passed, the Provincial Government of the Province within which the offender, shall have been sentenced may, without the consent of the offender, commute the punishment for imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding fourteen years.
Provided that, in a case in which sentence of imprisonment for life shall have been passed against an offender convicted for an offence punishable under Chapter XVI, such punishment shall not be commuted without the consent of the victim or, as the case may be, of his heirs.
Provided further that, in a case in which sentence of imprisonment for life shall has been passed against an offender convicted for an offense punishable under sections 354A, 376, 376A, 377 or 377B, or where the principle of fasad-fil-arz is attracted, such punishment shall not be commuted.
More or less, a similar law is laid down under section 402 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 (hereinafter CrPC). Section 402 is also reproduced as under:
402. Power to commute punishment. The provincial Government may, without the consent of the person sentenced, commute any one of following sentences for any other mentioned after it:
Death, imprisonment for life, rigorous imprisonment for a term not exceeding that to which he might have been sentenced, simple imprisonment for a like term, fine.
(2) Nothing in this section shall affect the provisions of section 54 or section 55 of the Pakistan Penal Code.
As far as the commutation of imprisonment for life is concerned; following principles are laid down in the above provisions:
a) The Provincial Government is the authority that may commute the punishment.
b) The said Government may commute the sentence without the consent of the offender.
c) The Sentence of imprisonment for life shall have been passed on the culprit by the Court. (This is not required for commuting the sentence under Section 402 of CrPC)
d) Imprisonment for life may be commuted for imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding fourteen years.
e) The Provincial Government shall not commute imprisonment for life without the consent of the victim or, as the case may be, of his heirs when it is passed under Chapter XVI of the Pakistan Penal Code.
f) The Provincial Government shall not commute imprisonment for life when it is passed for offenses mentioned in Second Proviso to Section 55 supra.
Besides Sections 54 (which provides for commutation of the sentence of death) and 55 of the PPC and Section 402 of the CrPC, the President of Pakistan’s Constitutional Prerogative to grant pardons etc., and the Provincial Government’s authority to suspend or remit sentences under section 401 of the CrPC also exists but the same are not subject of this study, therefore, are not discussed herein.
Pakistan Prisons Rules, 1978 – Rule 198(b) and Rule 140 – Legal Status
With regard to the term of imprisonment for life, some legal deformities do exist in the Pakistan Prisons Rules as well which needs to be discussed hereunder. Rule 198(b) of the said rules provides as under:
(b) “Lifer” means a prisoner sentenced to imprisonment for life; such sentence shall mean twenty five years rigorous imprisonment;
Furthermore, Rule 140 of the said statute also deserves to be reproduced for the clarification of thought, and the same is as under:
“Release of lifers and long term prisoners. Rule 140. (i) Imprisonment for life will mean twenty-five years rigorous imprisonment and every lifer prisoner shall undergo a minimum of fifteen years substantive imprisonment.
(ii) The case of all prisoners sentenced to imprisonment for life shall be referred to Government, through the Inspector General, after they have served fifteen years substantive imprisonment for consideration with reference to section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
(iii) The cases of all prisoners sentenced to cumulative periods of imprisonment aggregating twenty-five years or more shall also be submitted to Government, through the Inspector General, when they have served fifteen years substantive sentence for orders of the Government.”
Before proceeding further, every student of law must recall that a piece of subordinate legislation cannot override the Supreme Legislation. The Pakistan Prisons Rules are by all means subordinate legislation and the same cannot override the provision of the PPC. The above discussion on the provisions of the PPC makes it clear that no specific term of imprisonment is mentioned anywhere in the law for imprisonment for life; and if the said sentence is passed on the culprit, he will remain behind the bars for his entire remaining life unless his punishment is commuted/suspended/remitted as per the law or he is granted pardon, etc. under the President’s Prerogative.
Furthermore, Rule 140 provides that ‘every lifer prisoner shall undergo a minimum of fifteen years substantive imprisonment’. This again is in direct contradiction with Section 55 of the PPC which says that the sentence of imprisonment for life may be commuted for imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding fourteen years. The inference drawn from Section 55 is that the decision for commutation of the sentence of imprisonment for life is to be made before the culprit has served fourteen years of imprisonment. Therefore, one may observe that the above prison rules are more concerned with Section 401 of the CrPC which provides for the process of suspension or remission of the sentence than commutation of punishment, which both are entirely different concepts of law.
In this regard, a very relevant judgement of the Supreme Court in Abdul Malik versus State [PLD 2006 Supreme Court 365] deserves special mention. In the said judgement, necessary interpretation is supplied by the Hon’ble Supreme Court to bridge the gap between the above Prisons Rules and the relevant provisions of the PPC. The relevant excerpt of the judgment is reproduced as under:
“32. The afore-referred judgment of the Indian Supreme Court holds that sentence for life imprisonment would ordinarily mean imprisonment for the whole of the remaining period of the convicted person’s natural life. However, while considering the effect of remissions granted by the Government under the Prison Rules, it is observed that after earning remissions it would not be an automatic release of a lifer and his release has to be preceded by the order of the Government for remitting the balance of the sentence. The judgment therefore acknowledges the power of the appropriate government to grant remission even to the extent of remitting the entire remaining sentence of a lifer…… If a prisoner/lifer is released in terms of the Prison Rules under consideration, the said prisoner is in fact under an order of release and the sentence of imprisonment for life continues to entire.”
Before parting with this writing, I do want to admit that in Dilawar Hussain versus The State [2013 SCMR 1582] the Hon’ble Supreme Court has given obiter dicta that reflects contradiction with its previous judgement in Abdul Malik’s case (supra-referred). Perhaps this was the reason why Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, while hearing a petition for reducing the life imprisonment into a half, hinted at settling this ambiguity. He, reportedly, stated that he had been waiting for a long time for a case where the court could determine the span of life imprisonment and now was the time to settle the ambiguity in the law. Following these remarks, the Chief Justice ordered the constitution of a larger bench to hear the instant matter. No verdict has come to the limelight since. Let’s wait until this ambiguity is resolved at the country’s highest Judicial Forum.
The writer is a former Civil Judge cum Judicial Magistrate, and holds LL.M (Criminology) Degree. He can be reached at email@example.com.