Elisabetta Mottese

Life Imprisonment and Human Rights: An International and European Law Perspective

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Is life imprisonment compliant with human rights? The question is not new and debate about the compatibility of life sentences with the protection of prisoners’ rights still open. This article scrutinizes – at the international, European and national level – the most relevant legal instruments on life sentences, tracing the framework of the use of this form of criminal punishment. In a comparative perspective, particular focus is given to the European Court of Human Rights and the Italian Constitutional Court case law and to the way the jurisprudence assess the legality of life imprisonment. The analysis shows that among the various functions traditionally assigned to punishment, the rehabilitation appears to be the essential aim of any criminal justice system and that it is not possible without any realistic prospect of release. Not respecting the principle that all prisoners, including those serving life sentences, should be offered the possibility of rehabilitation clearly amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment. A rights-based approach, therefore, provides strong arguments to affirm that life imprisonment is no more acceptable in the contemporary international legal order where social rehabilitation and reintegration of persons deprived of their liberty is at the core of the criminal discourse about the treatment of prisoners.


  • life imprisonment
  • human rights
  • prisoners’
  • rights
  • European Court of Human Rights
  • Italian Constitutional Court
  • International Law


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