The Jammu and Kashmir high court on Friday said separatist outfit Muslim League chief Ashiq Hussain Faktoo, alias Dr Qasim, convicted of killing a Kashmiri Pandit, "will serve life imprisonment till death".
"The life imprisonment cannot be equivalent to imprisonment for 14 or 20 years, rather it is always meant as the whole natural life," said justice Mansoor Ahmad Mir.
Justice Mir pronounced the judgment, while Faktoo's lawyer Mian Abdul Qayoom was seeking directions for early release of the separatist leader, who completed 20 years in detention this year.
"On May 31, 2012, Faktoo completed 20 years in prison as per the Jail Manual and Prison's Act (of the state), which amounts to life imprisonment," said Qayoom.
Senior additional advocate general AM Magray, however, argued that "remission earned does not mean remission granted and 20 years does not mean life imprisonment".
Referring to several judgments made by the Supreme Court to interpret life imprisonment, justice Mansoor said, "The orders have been passed considering the gravity of the offences in those cases that the accused would not be entitled to be considered for premature release….The petition (of Faktoo) is, therefore, dismissed."
The judgment is significant because Kashmir has its own constitution and criminal procedure code and own definition of life imprisonment.
"According to state law, life imprisonment means 14 years in jail. This judgment is significant because the new interpretation, made in case of a life-term convict, is coming for the first time. It's to be seen how the judge has dealt with the local interpretation, which is a controversial point," said senior lawyer Zaffar Shah.
In 2003, 45-year-old Faktoo, who is husband of radical Islamic group Dukhtaran-e-Millat chief Asiya Andrabi, was sentenced to life imprisonment for involvement in the murder of Kashmiri Pandit human rights activist Hriday Nath Wanchoo in 1992.
Qasim, who completed his doctorate degree in Islamic studies in jail, denies the charges and accuses the government of persecution for his political views.
On Friday, the court was packed with relatives and supporters of the Muslim League patron, one of the main constituents of the Hurriyat led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Geelani has called a press conference on Saturday that is likely to react to the judgment.
Friday's judgment has brought an end to a long-drawn legal battle for Faktoo's family. A hardcore Islamist, Faktoo, is pursuing a second PhD in Islamic studies at present, after finishing one in 2006.
Faktoo's lawyer was seeking remission on the basis that the separatist leader delivered lectures to students of IGNOU, especially in social science. The family claims more than 125 students have completed their graduation and post-graduation under his guidance.