By Sanjeev Sirohi*
We finally see that Manu Sharma aged 43 years who was serving life sentence for the sensational murder of model Jessica Lal in a city restaurant in 1999 is now out of jail after the Lieutenant Governor approved his premature release as well as 18 other convicts. Following the May 28 order of the Delhi government in the name of L-G Anil Baijal, Director General (Prisons) Sandeep Goel said Manu Sharma was released on June 1 after completing all formalities pertaining to prisoners permanently released from the jail. Manu Sharma also known as Siddhartha Vashishtha was numbered 18 on the list.
To be sure, the order of Manu Sharma release said that, “In exercise of the power conferred by Section 432 of the Code of Criminal Procedure..the Lt Governor of the National Capital Territory of Delhi is pleased to remit the un-expired portion of the sentence of the following 19 life convicts on the recommendations of the Sentence Review Board in its meeting held on May 11, 2020.” The Sentence Review Board (SRB) in its meeting held on May 11, had recommended the release of Sharma and 18 others. Sandeep Goel who is DG (Prisons) said that, “Sharma walked out of jail on Monday. He spent 17 years behind bars. His actual period with remission is 23 years and four months.”
It would be vital to mention here that Manu Sharma who is son of former Union Minister Vinod Sharma was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Delhi High Court in December 2006 for shooting and killing model Jessica Lal after she refused to serve him liquor at the Tamarind Court restaurant owned by socialite Bina Ramani which was an unlicensed bar at Qutub Colonade in South Delhi’s Mehrauli area on the night of April 30, 1999 at a private party. The trial court had initially acquitted him but the Delhi High Court which undertook the case amid nationwide outrage and protests, reversed the trial court decision and sentenced him to a life term. The Supreme Court also in 2010 upheld the life sentence.
It cannot be denied that the women rights activists have called ‘unfortunate’ the decision to prematurely release Manu Sharma saying that it sets a wrong precedent. But it also cannot be overlooked that in 2018, Jessica Lal’s sister Sabrina Lal had written to Tihar jail authorities saying that she has no objections to Sharma’s release. Sabrina Lal also said that, “The past is behind me. Our fight was always for justice. I just hope that he is a reformed man and learned his lesson.” This certainly played a key role in ensuring his release.
It also cannot be denied that Sunil Gupta who was the prison’s legal officer for 35 years and who knew Sharma inside prison said that, “He helped the jail factory in branding its products and made it famous. It was his idea to open outlets or sell the products on the web. His non-profit also focused on prisoners’ children. Had Sharma not been a “high-profile prisoner he may have been released just after completing 14 years in prison. Also, one must remember that a prison is a reformation centre. It is not a place to lock anyone forever.”
It must also be pointed out here that Manu Sharma’s lawyer – Amit Sahni said that his client was already out on emergency parole since the first week of April, as part of measures to decongest jails amid the pandemic. He further said that the L-G had accepted the SRB’s recommendations as per which Manu Sharma is entitled for permanent release from jail. Sharma has undergone imprisonment of 16 years, 11 months and 24 days in actual and 23 years, 4 months and 22 days with remission. He had also availed parole 12 times and furlough 24 times.
It must also be disclosed here that Manu Sharma’s case had come up for review multiple times since 2017, only to be rejected. The Sentence Review Board (SRB) is chaired by the Delhi Home Minister. Director General (Prisons), Principal Secretary (Home), Principal Secretary (Law), Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime), the government’s chief probation officer and a district judge are also part of the Committee. This time too the plea of Manu Sharma was decided solely on merit. His good conduct in jail also played a big role in securing his early release.
As per sources, the Board also took into consideration the Delhi Police’s response which has not opposed the premature release of the convict in the meeting. The chief probation officer, social welfare department also recommended the same. All this led to his early release.
It would be instructive to note that an application for remission is considered only when a life term convict has spent 14 years in jail. The Board takes into account several factors such as conduct of the prisoner in jail, whether crime was premeditated or a spurt of the moment act, nature and gravity of crime, propensity for committing crime, prospects of post release rehabilitation, etc. Very rightly so!
Since 2018, Manu was lodged in the open jail of the prison. Open jail prisoners are allowed to step out but have to spend the night inside the complex. The media first reported this development on April 22, 2018, and that it was possibly the penultimate step towards his release. In November 2019, Manu’s advocate approached the Delhi High Court seeking his release. The Delhi High Court then asked the Board to consider Sharma’s case for release in its next meeting on May 11.
It must also be brought out here that initially when the Delhi High Court took up the case, Manu Sharma was represented by none other than the legendary Ram Jethmalani (now deceased) and later in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court had held that “presumption of innocence of an accused is a legal presumption and should not be destroyed at the very threshold through the process of media trial and that too when the investigation is pending”.
So finally we see that Manu Sharma too is now a free man. His case is a message to all that a fit of anger can destroy our so many years in jail. So it is always advisable to rein in one’s anger as it can save us from getting into deep trouble!
*Advocate, Meerut, Uttar Pradesh