Life Imprisonment In India: What Does Double Life Term Mean?

Life term, a popular punitive measure—more than half the convicts in Indian prisons are serving life sentences—was added in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 as a punishment only after it was amended in 1955

Ritika Jain
Update: 2021-10-15 06:48 GMT

A Kerala court on October 11 convicted 28-year-old P Sooraj for killing his wife Uthra by using a cobra as a murder weapon. Two days later, Additional District and Sessions Judge (ADJ) M Manoj awarded 28-year-old Sooraj with a double life term in prison, Rs 5 lakh fine, ten years for killing his wife by poison, and seven years for destroying evidence.

On May 7 2020, Sooraj killed his wife Uthra, a 25-year-old differently-abled woman, by releasing a cobra in the room where she was sleeping, which subsequently bit her. This was Sooraj's second attempt to kill Uthra after his first bid with a viper failed.

Judge Manoj observed that the May 2020 Uthra murder case was "diabolic, ghastly, brutal and heinous" and "was committed with unparalleled wickedness and in a ghastly manner". Though unusual, the judge said the murder could not be considered as a "rarest of the rare" case, thus saving Sooraj from the gallows. The judge also considered Sooraj's age while denying the prosecution's request for capital punishment.

BOOM explains what life imprisonment means and with a double life term, how much time P Sooraj will spend in jail.

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What is life imprisonment?

Persons convicted of grave and heinous offences like murder, rape, blasphemy etc. carry a punishment of life in prison. Imprisonment for life is regarded as a more humane and less severe alternative to the death penalty.

The Supreme Court in its 1961 Gopal Vinayak Godse verdict said life imprisonment meant the remainder of a prisoner's natural life. This means that if a person is awarded a life sentence, he will be in jail for the remainder of his natural life.

Life term, a popular punitive measure—more than half the convicts in Indian prisons are serving life sentences—was added in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 as a punishment only after it was amended in 1955.

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Can a person awarded life imprisonment ever get free?

In 2019, the Tamil Nadu government prematurely released 13 persons who were convicted for the 1997 massacre of six Dalits. The prisoners' release was in accordance with the state government's policy to grant some prisoners general amnesty on former chief minister MG Ramachandran's birthday and on other occasions.

Prisoners serving life terms are eligible for remission or premature release after they complete at least 14 years of their jail term. Every state/prison has its own rules and parameters they adhere to while considering the premature release of a prisoner.

The Supreme Court's by a 3:2 majority in its 2015 Sriharan verdict ruled that the top court or the high court could pre-determine a fixed sentence a prisoner must serve before he is considered for remission. So for example, a constitutional court could decide that a particular prisoner must serve at least 20 years before he is considered for remission.

This punishment was considered in cases where capital punishment was deemed to be too harsh and simple life imprisonment (with a chance of remission after 14 years) seemed too mild.

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How many years will P Sooraj spend in jail?

A Kerala court sentenced P Sooraj to a double life term in prison for murder, Rs 5 lakh fine, ten years for using poison to kill his wife, and seven years for destroying evidence. The court ruled that the term sentences (fixed sentence) which is ten and seven years, in this case, would be run consecutively (one after the other), whereas the life imprisonment would kick in after that and it would run concurrently (at the same time).

This means that Sooraj will have to spend 17 years in jail before he begins to serve his life sentence. He will be considered for remission only after he completes 14 years of his life term. The court said that in case of remission of the substantive sentence, the period of detention Sooraj underwent starting from May 24 2020 till today shall be set off from the substantive sentence of imprisonment u/s 428 CrPC.

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How many prisoners serving a sentence of life imprisonment in jail?

According to the 2019 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, there are a total of 4,78,600 prisoners lodged in 1350 prisons in India with 4,58,687 of them male and 19,913 female prisoners. Of these, 1,44,125 are convicts.

Data suggests that 53.54% (or 77,158) of the convicts are serving a life sentence.

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