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Community Action Network calls for independent inquiry into S’pore Prison Service’s alleged breach of confidentiality regarding death row inmates’ privileged information

Singapore-based human rights coalition Community Action Network (CAN) has called for an independent inquiry into the country’s Prison Service’s alleged breach of confidentiality regarding death row prisoners’ privileged information.

In a statement on Monday (21 September), CAN cited the alleged action of the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) in sending privileged information between 44-year-old Singaporean Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin and his then-defence counsel to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC).

The alleged breach, said CAN, “only came to light” this month when the AGC sent a letter to the court on 18 September, in which the AGC admitted that it was forwarded five letters written by Mr Syed while his case was still pending before the Court of Appeal in 2018.

Five of the letters were addressed to his uncle, while one was addressed to the said counsel.

“According to the AGC, the correspondence came into its possession “from the SPS on 10 May 2018 and 7 June 2018 for the purpose of preparing for the Prosecution’s response.”

“Under 127A of the Prison Regulations, the prison is allowed to open, read, and even copy or withhold letters sent by or to inmates.

“However, the regulations also state that the right to copy or withhold letters does not apply to “letters written by a prisoner to the prisoner’s legal adviser and letters written by a prisoner’s legal adviser.”

“It is extremely troubling, then, that the SPS not only copied a letter written by Syed to his then-defence counsel, but also sent it to the AGC,” said CAN.

The coalition also noted that Mr Syed’s case was not the only incidence in which the SPS had allegedly forwarded prisoners’ documents and correspondences to the AGC, as seen in Malaysian death row inmate Datchinamurthy Kataiah’s complaint regarding the matter.

The Court of Appeal pointed out that the law permits the SPS to screen and copy letters and documents for the “good management and government” of prisons.

However, it stressed that “an expectation of confidentiality in a letter or document shared between private parties” remains, and that “there was no legal basis in the form of a positive legal right to forward copies of the same to the AGC”.

The CAN called for an independent inquiry to this matter, stating that it is “of public interest to know whether similar actions have occurred in the past, with what frequency, and whether any of those disclosed correspondence could have prejudiced cases against defendants”.

“In Syed’s case, the prison forwarded his private correspondence to the prosecution in May and June 2018, while his case was still pending. The Court of Appeal ruled on his appeal in October 2018.

“Yet the disclosure about the AGC being in possession of these letters was only made on 18 September 2020: the day on which Syed had initially been scheduled to hang, if not for an interim stay of execution. Had Syed not found a pro bono lawyer to file an eleventh-hour application on his behalf, this matter would likely never have come to light,” said the coalition.

CAN questioned if inmates who were already executed were affected by similar breaches.

Quoting the Court of Appeal’s ruling in Mr Datchinamurthy’s case, the coalition also stressed the urgency for a moratorium on executions due to the seriousness of the recent revelations, as it is expedient for justice to be “manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”.

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