Jessica Lal murder convict Manu Sharma moved to open jail
He could be any white-collar worker, stepping out at 8am and returning by 6 pm after putting in a hard day’s work. Except that the place he leaves in the morning and returns to in the evening isn’t a warm, comfortable home where he has family; it’s Tihar Central Jail.
Jessica Lal murder convict Siddharth Vashishta, better known by his alias Manu Sharma, has followed those timings since being transferred to the so-called open jail around three months ago in a reward for his “good conduct,” jail officials said. Five other inmates of Tihar, which holds about 15,000 prisoners, were similarly rewarded.
Many prison officials see the shift to open jail as the penultimate step before the eventual release of Sharma, 41, who has spent more than 12 years in the prison since being convicted in December 2006 of murdering Lal and sentenced to life imprisonment. He has spent at least 15 years in prison since the day he was arrested by Delhi police for the murder. The Delhi high court found Sharma, son of Congress politician and former minister Venod Sharma, guilty of the April 1999 killing of Lal. He pulled out a gun and shot Lal, a model who was tending an unlicensed bar at a private party, after she refused to serve him a drink well past midnight.
According to his open-jail transfer order, Sharma has to work with the eponymous Siddharth Vashishta Foundation (SVF), a non-government organisation (NGO) which claims to work for rehabilitation of prisoners and their children.
Open-jail inmates are allowed to step out of prison gates and work every day. They cannot leave the city or spend time anywhere but the place of work mentioned in the transfer order.
Two of the five other inmates also shifted to open jail were identified by prison officials as Vijay and Hashim, both murder convicts. The two work at a court complex selling products made by Tihar prisoners. HT couldn’t ascertain the identities of the other three.
HT visited house number 1598F, Nangal Raya Extension, Janakpuri, west Delhi -- the address listed on his NGO’s website – but residents of the neighbourhood said the place had been vacant for around eight months. At L-47, Lajpat Nagar -- another address mentioned on the website — the office was open but Sharma was not in. Kapil Vohra, who identified himself as an employee of SVF said Sharma could not speak to the press because it was against jail rules.
“Siddharth ji (Sharma) asked jail officers for permission after you came to our office twice. He asked jail officials for permission to speak to you, but jail officials did not allow it because he is still a prisoner. He can only speak when he is out on parole later this month. He comes to office 2-3 times a week and spends the other days visiting prisoners in different jails and identifying those who need help,” Vohra said.
Vohra said Sharma’s NGO looks after more than 700 underprivileged children whose parents are in prison. “Our NGO works closely with all prisoners and helps them get jobs. Some have got jobs as painters, security guards, chefs. We help the children with their schools, tuition and uniform fees.”
Explaining the concept of open and semi-open jail, a prison officer said convicts who have a record of good behaviour and have spent at least 12 years in jail are eligible for transfer to open and semi-open jail. Jail officials said prisoners who have less than two years of their sentence left to serve are preferred for such transfers.
Tihar’s additional inspector general Raj Kumar confirmed Sharma’s transfer to the open jail but did not comment on his case. “I won’t comment on the record of any individual in the open jail. Only those prisoners who have a good record inside prison are first shifted to semi- open and then to open jail. These are prisoners who have not violated any rule during their stay and have also not received any punishment,” he said.
Transfer to open jail does not mean a prisoner will be freed because the decision to release a convict is taken by a board headed by the state home minister. “The board takes into consideration different parameters before releasing any prisoner,” Kumar added.
Still, according to a senior jail officer who did not wish to be named, once a prisoner who has been sentenced to life imprisonment completes 12 years in regular jail and two more in semi-open or open jail, the odds of his or her release are greater; that means the prisoner has completed 14 years in jail with a record of ‘good conduct’, to boot.
The Sentence Review Board, which decides on the release of prisoners, sentenced for life, first takes up the cases of those who have completed 14 years in prison.
Venod Sharma said he was travelling outside Delhi and could meet for a comment only next week.
When contacted about Sharma’s work, an advocate who represents the NGO said: “I do some pro bono work for the NGO called SVT, where they give me cases of poor jail inmates who are not having sound legal aid... However, I am not privy to Mr Sharma’s personal information, which I think can be best obtained from Mr Sharma’s family or his personal lawyer.”
In 2009, Sharma was caught partying at a five-star hotel after securing parole on grounds that his mother was ill. He was caught at a party after an argument with the then police commissioner’s son. Sharma voluntarily returned to prison when his mother, who he claimed was ill, was seen at a press conference in Chandigarh.