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The Delhi High Court today directed the Sentence Review Board (SRB) to consider Jessica Lal murder convict Manu Sharma’s plea seeking his early release from jail.
The order was passed by a Single Judge Bench of Justice Najmi Waziri while hearing Sharma’s challenge to a December 7, 2018 decision of the SRB which rejected his application for premature release.
The Court’s direction came after Standing Counsel appearing for State of NCT of Delhi Rahul Mehra informed the Court that in light of amendments to the Delhi Prisons Rules, 2018 which came into effect from January 1, 2019, the SRB would now consider pleas seeking premature release on a quarterly basis. Therefore, Sharma’s plea would come up for consideration in March, he stated.
“If I issue notice, you (SRB) will not consider it saying that the matter is before the Court“, Justice Waziri remarked while observing that the initiating proceedings before the High Court would only delay the consideration of his plea by the Board.
Since it had already been more than six weeks since the last meeting of SRB, the Court deemed it appropriate to let the Board consider Sharma’s plea as per the new Jail Rules in its next meeting.
“In view of the circumstances, SRB shall consider the circumstances and the dicta of the Court (in Sushil Sharma’s case) in its next meeting in March or so“, the Court ordered.
Sharma was sentenced to life imprisonment for commission of offences under Sections 302, 201, 120B of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and Section 25 of the Arms Act, 1959 after he was found guilty of murdering Jessica Lal at a party in Delhi in April 1999. Till date, he has spent over 20 years in jail, including the term of his remission, and has been released thrice on bail – eight times on parole and fifteen times on furlough.
A 3:2 majority of the SRB, which consists of the Minister in-charge of Prisons as its Chairman, and Principal Secretaries of Delhi’s Home and Law, Justice & Legislative Affairs Ministries, among others as its members, had refused to release Sharma, citing ‘perversity and circumstances in which the crime was committed’ as grounds. Two members of the Board had refrained from voting on the issue.
This was the third time that his plea for early release was rejected by the Board.
Alleging that the SRB did not consider his plea in a fair and impartial manner, it is Sharma’s case that the minutes of the meeting do not specify the reason for rejecting his plea in spite of favourable reports by the Social Welfare Officer, Chief Probation Officer, and the Delhi Police.
Senior Advocate Salman Khurshid, appearing for Sharma, submitted that present case was borne out of “unusual circumstances” wherein “people far less deserving have been released” by the Board.
He argued that the Board ought to have given “cogent reasons” before rejecting Sharma’s plea after following the guidelines formulated in a 2004 order passed by the Lt. Governor of Delhi.
The 2004 guidelines provide for consideration of a plea for early release by a convict sentenced to life imprisonment who has completed 20 years in prison with remission, which is the maximum prescribed period of incarceration.
While ordering the early release of Tandoor-case convict Sushil Sharma, the High Court in December last year had iterated that the SRB is strictly bound by these guidelines, and its decision would be open to judicial review on allegation of arbitrary, capricious and whimsical application of mind.
The petition filed through Advocate Amit Sahni stated that although Sharma satisfied all the parameters set out in the guidelines, his case was rejected by the SRB without assigning any cogent reasons and without application of mind in an arbitrary, unfair and whimsical manner, on all three occasions.
In light of the new Delhi Prisons Rules, the petition now stands disposed of with a direction to the SRB to consider the same in its next meeting.
Read the petition: