Prime accused Sushil Sharma | Getty
Accused Sushil Sharma | Getty images
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Sushil Kumar Sharma served 23 years in prison after he killed his wife and attempted to dispose of her body by putting it in a tandoor.

The Delhi High Court Friday overturned a decision of the Sentence Review Board and ordered a premature release of the horrific Tandoor murder case convict Sushil Kumar Sharma, who was awarded life imprisonment.

The Sentence Review Board had earlier rejected his plea in October because of the “brutality” of his crime.

Sharma’s release may not be cheered by many but the court’s decision brings to focus an important debate – Should the state rely on the brutality of a person’s crime when it had over two decades to ‘reform’ him and what does life sentence really mean?

Sharma has served 23 years in prison after he killed his wife and attempted to dispose of her body by putting it in a tandoor because he suspected her of having an extra-marital affair, in July 1995.

Just five years ago, the Supreme Court commuted Sushil Sharma’s death penalty to a life term because he had no other known criminal antecedents. Both the trial court (in 2003) and the Delhi High Court (in 2007) had given him death penalty.

Also read: What’s a life sentence when life is almost over: Hashimpura victims’ kin on court order 

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Early this year, Sharma sought premature release from Tihar jail. The government had rejected his plea. When Sharma challenged his rejection before the Delhi High Court, the court observed, “He is incarcerated for over 25 years, including remission. A murder itself is brutal. He has already served the sentence. Does it not infringe upon his human rights, which are inalienable rights?”

But doesn’t life imprisonment mean a lifetime in jail? It does, but the law on what a life sentence means is complex.

What is life imprisonment?

If you go by Bollywood’s definition of a life sentence, you would think it means only 14 years in jail. It is not just ordinary citizens who do not understand the legalese. Many trial courts and high courts also went by the same definition till a few years ago.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly tried to dispel this notion and has clarified that life imprisonment means the convict spends his/her remaining life in jail. In many judgments, the courts have now started specifying that “life” in life imprisonment means “life”.

The Constitution, however, itself grants Governors of states the power to remit sentences. Bollywood perhaps got its cue from the Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows the state to commute a death penalty to a life sentence and a life sentence to a sentence not exceeding 14 years. In some cases, terminally-ill convicts are released since they are considered ‘unfit’ to serve the sentence.

Also read: The wrong theory that survives 23 years after Delhi’s infamous ‘tandoor murder case’

States can release the convicts earlier despite the courts saying ‘life means life’ because the power of the state, derived from the Constitution, cannot be limited by the courts. To exercise this power, states have set up sentence review boards (SRBs). While a convict does not have a right to be released automatically after serving 14 years, he becomes eligible for consideration by the review board.

If a convict has other sentences apart from a life sentence, those will run concurrently unless specified otherwise by the courts. In case of multiple counts of life sentences, those will run concurrently and not consecutively. After all, a prisoner has only one life even if s/he faces multiple life sentences.

The Tandoor convict’s case

Sushil Kumar Sharma’s application for premature release from jail is fairly regular despite the brutality of his crime. His plea was considered and rejected by the sentence review board along with other convicts, including Manu Sharma who killed Jessica Lall.

However, the processes adopted by the Sentence Review Board have come under radar lately, prompting the courts to intervene. In Delhi, the review board consists of Delhi home minister Satyendra Jain, director-general (prisons), home secretary, law secretary, joint commissioner of police (crime), a district judge and the chief probation officer appointed by the government.

Also read: How to kill a criminal justice system – rewarding prosecutors for death sentences 

As per the rules, the board is required to meet once every three months and must take into account the conduct of the convict in jail and his/her potential to return to a normal life.

First, the board did not meet as scheduled. For example, 76-year-old Krishan Govind who had suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2016 and partial paralysis in 2017 died earlier this year waiting for the review board to consider releasing him prematurely.

And when it did meet, the board dismissed several applications without assigning proper reasons. A PIL before the high court has highlighted that the convicts are not given a chance to present their case before the board. The sentence review board rejected Sharma’s plea since his crime was “brutal” and the L-G, who finally clears the decision, also upheld the board’s views.

Need for a fresh look

The Indian criminal justice system is not designed to keep a convict in prison perpetually. The rationale for incarceration, whatever the time period may be, is to reform him.

Despite that objective, the law is complex for an average prisoner to comprehend. Since courts are slowly abandoning death penalty due to the “rarest of the rare” doctrine, life sentences are handed with little attention to what happens next.

In Sharma’s case, should the government acting through the review board still take into account how brutal his crime was even after it had more than two decades to ‘reform’ him? After all, three courts considered that brutality, which put him in jail in the first place.

In Sharma’s case it is the brutality but what if caste, surname, religion of a convict too have an impact on deciding a case? The functioning of such bodies, which impact the life and liberty of an individual, cannot be opaque and arbitrary.

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