Citing Dostoyevsky, Delhi HC Reduces Sentence of 5 men Who Assisted Jaish-e-Mohammad

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Court observed that the Indian justice system prioritizes the rehabilitation of offenders over perpetual incarceration. It acknowledged the individuals’ swift admission of guilt, signifying no preconceived expectations. Furthermore, the court remarked that there was no evidence indicating their irredeemability

The Delhi High Court, on Monday, reduced the sentences of individuals convicted of assisting the terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), citing the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The court referred to chapter 19 of ‘Crime and Punishment’ and noted that if a person has a conscience, he will suffer for his mistake; that will be his punishment, in addition to imprisonment.

The bench of Justice Suresh Kumar Kait and Justice Manoj Jain held, “The man who has a conscience suffers whilst acknowledging his sin. We refer to a quote by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the author of „Crime and Punishment‟ and in chapter 19, Dostoevsky writes that “if he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake; that will be punishment — as well as the prison”.

The five men were convicted of various offences under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) by the trial court. They contested the severity of their sentences without disputing their voluntary guilty pleas.

Senior Advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan, representing the appellants, argued that they did not attempt to negotiate a bargain, which was legally impermissible. They were genuinely remorseful for their actions and pleaded guilty without any expectations. They knew they could face life imprisonment but still chose to plead guilty.

Senior Advocate Ramakrishnan contended that, when considering all the allegations together, it was evident that the essence of the charges was substantially the same. Section 18 of the UAPA also penalized conspiracy or preparation for a terrorist act, similar to Section 121A of the IPC. While the trial court sentenced only five years for comparable offences under the UAPA, it inexplicably awarded life sentences under Section 121A of the IPC.

Thus, Senior Advocate Ramakrishnan argued that the severity of the offences should not have been the sole determining factor. For offences under Section 121A of the IPC and Section 23 of the UAPA, a sentence other than the maximum should be considered, given the special circumstances favoring the appellants, he urged.

Conversely, Special Public Prosecutor Gautam Narayan, representing the NIA, justified the sentences. He argued that the trial court considered all relevant factors when determining the sentences. Since the appellants pleaded guilty without any expectation, they could not now complain about the severity of the sentences. He asserted that the appeals were unfounded and that there was no reason to alter the sentences imposed by the trial court. He further argued that the appellants were highly radicalized members of a banned terrorist organization responsible for several terrorist acts in India.

The court noted that the charge involved conspiracy under Section 121A of the IPC rather than an actual act under Section 121 of the IPC. It was also observed that sentencing requires a nuanced approach that considers many factors, including the nature of the offense, mitigating or aggravating circumstances, the offender's prior criminal record, age, background, education, home life, sobriety, social adjustment, emotional and mental condition, and prospects for rehabilitation.

Of course, there is no strait-jacket formula or universal rule or any divine mantra but the order on sentence has to show and maintain the requisite equipoise. It has to be fair to all the stakeholders prosecution, victim, society and, not to forget, even to the convict”, the bench added. 

The bench observed that the most significant mitigating factor was that all appellants pleaded guilty at the first opportunity without any expectation. They expressed deep regret for their actions. The contents of the application submitted by the appellants under Section 229 of the CrPC to the trial court, where they expressed their desire to plead guilty, were carefully reviewed.

Furthermore, the bench noted that the severity of the allegations could not be the sole determining factor for the sentence. Thus, sentencing required a different, balanced approach. The Court needed to consider all mitigating circumstances, including the appellants' age and previous records. Their candid and unconditional plea of guilt was also significant. If the case had gone to trial, it would have taken years to conclude, thereby saving precious judicial time.

“​​One can always condemn the sin, but not the sinner, always”, the court held. 

The court held that given the gravity of the matter, the appellants did not deserve undue leniency. However, considering their candid confession, relatively clean antecedents, inclination for reformation, and young age, a life sentence was not warranted.

We have already noted that with respect to the various other offences, where the maximum sentence was life, learned Trial Court gave them five years or ten years of sentence. However, by awarding life for one offence, what was attempted to be given by one hand has been snatched by the other”, the bench noted. 

The bench opined that the trial court did not provide specific reasons for awarding the maximum punishment for offences under Section 121A IPC and Section 23 UAPA. The court was influenced by the severity of the allegations and did not adequately consider that the appellants were remorseful and had pleaded guilty at the first available opportunity. Given their young age and the lack of prior convictions, the trial court should have adopted a more reformative approach, as noted in the impugned judgment, although this was not implemented.

Accordingly, the court reduced the sentence to 10 years, while noting that justice would be served by punishing the appellants with rigorous imprisonment for ten years instead of the maximum life sentence.

Case Title: Bilal Ahmad Mir Alias Bilal Mir Alias Billa v National Investigating Agency New Delhi (2024:DHC:4113-DB)