Our longstanding perception of 20 to 30 years of “life imprisonment” has been sharply questioned by the Chief Justice of Bangladesh in recent time. The latest judgment of the Appellate Division (AD) in Ataur Mridha v State (Criminal Appeal No. 15-16/2010, decided on 14 February 2017) marks the official consolidation of his Lordship's views. His arguments are quite clear and they make sense. “Life imprisonment” as one of the modes of sentencing is endorsed by section 54 of the Penal Code. Section 45, on the other hand defines “life” as the natural life of a human being unless something contrary appears from a given context. Honorable Chief Justice therefore calls for a plain but combined reading of sections 45 and 54 of the Penal Code. Both taken together, “Life imprisonment” would mean a sentence of imprisonment for the whole of the remaining period of the convicted person's natural life (p. 18 of the AD judgment in Ataur Mridha).
There is however confusion as regards the exact 'law' that is sought to be established by the AD through this judgment. While some of us see a strict rule of till death imprisonment for all life convicts, the Attorney General argues for a context sensitive reading of the verdict. Several thorough readings of the judgment gave me an impression that the Attorney General is perhaps right.
Section 57 and “fractions of the terms of punishment”
Section 57 reckons “imprisonment for life” as equivalent to rigorous imprisonment for thirty years while calculating fractions of terms of some punishment. This particular section of Penal Code has continued to fetch our mistaken but longstanding perception of a 30 years' tenure for life imprisonment. The AD in Ataur Mridha has successfully refuted the myth. Plainly understood, section 57 is applicable to cases where the court would need to award sentence in terms of fractions of sentence prescribed for a principal offence. Take the offence of 'sedition' for example. Sedition, as per Section 124A is punishable with imprisonment for life. If somebody attempts sedition but fails, the Penal Code would not define the punishment expressly. Rather Section 511 of the Code would require the court to award a sentence of maximum half of life imprisonment prescribed in section 124A. But what is “half” of one's life? This time the section 57 would step in. Reckoning “life imprisonment” as thirty years imprisonment, a half-fraction of “life imprisonment” for this case would be fifteen years. The AD here holds that except helping us determine the fractions applicable to offenses like above, section 57 has no other role to play with the tenure of life imprisonment as such. Life imprisonment therefore means “imprisonment for the natural duration of a convict's life” (pp. 50-51 of the judgment).
Problems of “remission” under the Jail Code
Sections 45, 54 and 57 being convincingly resolved, the Court entered the gloomy area of “remission”, “commutation” etc. Some provisions of the Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), and Jail Code and the longstanding perception and practices arising therefrom have fetched a generalised belief that a person sentenced to imprisonment for life would usually be released after spending a maximum of 21-22 years in prison.
In this regard, it is important to note that Article 49 of the Constitution concerning President's power to grant pardons, reprieves, respites or remissions of punishments is exclusive and not justiceable (p. 47 of the judgment). The AD also does not see any problem with the section 55 of the Penal Code and section 401 of the CrPC which empower the government to commute an imprisonment for life into an imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding twenty years. A clear position of the AD is that 'in absence of any order of commutation of sentence either under the Penal Code or the Code of Criminal Procedure,' a prisoner sentenced to imprisonment for life is bound in law to serve the life term in jail (p. 20 of the judgment).
The AD, however, sees problem in the longstanding practice of remissions awarded to the prisoners under various rules of the Prisons Act and Jail Code. The Court feels that any mechanical conversion of life sentence into one of fixed term by the jail authority is apparently without jurisdiction. If the jail authority reports any life convict's case to the government after the completion of twenty years, the government may consider it under section 401 of the CrPC (p. 34 of the judgment). But if they are being mechanically released after completion of 20 years through the regular remission framework of the Jail Code, it would be a clear violation of law (p. 33 of the judgment). The reasons behind this position are twofold. As a life imprisonment of indefinite duration, the remission earned by a prisoner do not in practice help him, as it is not possible to predict the date of his death (pp. 24-25 of the judgment). Additionally, the Jail Code remission rules being mere 'administrative instructions', they cannot 'stultify the effect of the sentence of life imprisonment given by the court under the Penal Code' (p. 60 of the judgment).
A context sensitive reading
It is clear from the judgment (specifically from p. 77 and onwards), the AD was not concerned with the remission in life imprisonments in general. From the Indian and native precedents referred therein and also from the particular context of the case in hand (Ataur Mridha's lawyer was pleading for a commutation of death penalty), it is abundantly clear that the Court was much more focused: “If [this court or the High Court Division] on consideration of the nature of offence committed by the offender and taking consideration of the interest of the victim and the accused, commutes the sentence of death [to imprisonment] till life …. this category of cases would be beyond application of remission” (p. 88 of the judgment).
What could it best possibly mean? Is the Government's commutation power under section 401 CrPC restricted for “all” cases of life imprisonment? Or it is “only in cases where one's death sentence is commuted (by the court) to life imprisonment”? The Attorney General favours the second one. From a contextual point of view, I would also.
The ground rule
Therefore, the ground rule of life imprisonment after Ataur Mirdha would be like this: life imprisonments are meant for the whole duration of the convict's life. No life convict may be given remission under the Jail Code, Prisoners Act and subordinate rules. A life convict however may be eligible for commutation of sentences under article 49 of the Constitution, section 55 of the Penal Code and section 401 of the CrPC. A death convict whose sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment will not be eligible for remission, commutation, etc. under the Jail Code, Prisoners Act, Penal Code or CrPC. Article 49 however remains unaffected.
The writer is an Assistant Professor of Law, University of Chittagong.