Although life imprisonment rarely means lifelong imprisonment in practical terms, in essence, the two penalties are the same. Life imprisonment generally does not constitute a whole-life sentence because the prisoner will, in most cases, be eligible for early release after a fixed period set by the court. In exceptionally grave cases, the court may order that:
- a life sentence should mean life; and
- the prisoner should remain incarcerated for the rest of their natural life.
The case of Panagiotis Kafkaris, who was released from prison in August 2018 after more than 30 years' imprisonment, was considered sufficiently serious to merit a whole-life sentence and his release marks the end of a landmark case on this issue in Cyprus.
On 9 March 1989 the Limassol Assize Court found Kafkaris guilty of the premeditated murder of a man and his two children, aged 11 and 13 years old, by placing an explosive device under their car and detonating it. The following day, Kafkaris was sentenced to life imprisonment for each of the murders.1
At the sentencing hearing the prosecution invited the court to:
- examine the meaning of the term 'life imprisonment' in the Criminal Code; and
- in particular, clarify whether it entailed Kafkaris's imprisonment for the rest of his life or merely for 20 years, as provided by the Prison (General) Regulations 19812 and the Prison (General) (Amending) Regulations 19873 adopted under Section 4 of the Prison Discipline Law.4
If the court found that the latter was applicable, the issue of whether the sentences should be imposed consecutively or concurrently would arise and the prosecution would propose consecutive sentences. The assize court found that the term 'life imprisonment' in the Criminal Code5 means imprisonment for the remainder of the convicted person's life, stating as follows:
The law on the basis of which the accused has been found guilty on three counts of premeditated murder, provides that: 'Whosoever shall be convicted of premeditated murder shall be liable to imprisonment for life'. It follows, therefore, that for the offence in question life imprisonment is imposed by the court as a mandatory sentence.
In view of this, the court did not consider it necessary to examine whether the sentences that it imposed would run concurrently or consecutively.
Nonetheless, when Kafkaris was admitted to prison, he was given written notice that he would be eligible for release in July 2002 (ie, after 20 years' imprisonment less anticipated remissions under the prison regulations).
Subsequently, in a 1992 habeas corpus case6 brought by another convict, the Supreme Court declared the prison regulations unconstitutional, leading to their repeal. In 1996 a new Prison Law7 was enacted, which excluded prisoners serving life sentences from the right of remission of their sentences for good behaviour. Accordingly, Kafkaris was not released in 2002.
In January 2004 Kafkaris submitted a habeas corpus application to the Supreme Court in its first-instance jurisdiction challenging the lawfulness of his detention. The Supreme Court dismissed the application and the subsequent appeal against its decision.
Kafkaris then applied to the European Court of Human Rights, which issued its judgment in 2008.8 By a majority, the court found that there had been a violation of Article 7 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms with regard to the quality of the law applicable at the material time and rejected all other arguments raised in the application. Immediately afterwards, Kafkaris made a new habeas corpus application challenging the lawfulness of his detention, but this was rejected.
One of the arguments put before the European Court of Human Rights was that lifelong imprisonment, as it was currently applied, without the prospect of release, constituted inhuman or degrading treatment and thus infringed Article 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The European Court of Human Rights rejected this argument on the basis of the Cyprus government's commitments that a system of provisional release was to be introduced.
The Prisons (Amendment) Law 2009 introduced a conditional release system allowing prisoners to apply to an independent parole board established by the law for conditional release on licence and serve the remainder of their sentence outside prison. In order to be eligible to apply, the prisoner must have served half of a sentence of more than two years or more than 12 years of a life sentence (or concurrent life sentences). Prisoners serving consecutive life sentences cannot apply for conditional release until they have served 25 years. Prisoners serving long non-life sentences cannot apply until they have served half their sentence; for example, a prisoner sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment will not be eligible until they have served 15 years.
1 Case 23069/87, 10 March 1989.
2 Regulatory Act 18/81.
3 Regulatory Act 76/87.
4 Cap 286.
5 Cap 154.
6 Hadjisavvas v the Republic of Cyprus (judgment of 8 October 1992, (1992) 1 AAD 1134).
7 Law 62(I)/1996.
8 Application 21906/04.
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