Apex court: Prison officials not allowed to forward copies of inmates' documents to AGC

SINGAPORE – The country’s highest court said on Thursday (Aug 13) that the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) is not allowed to forward copies of inmates’ documents to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC).

If the AGC wished to obtain copies of letters and documents belonging to a prisoner, the proper procedure would be to get the prisoner’s consent or an order of court, said the Court of Appeal.

The forwarding of documents was highlighted by the court in a judgment dismissing a case brought by two Malaysian death row inmates seeking to stay their executions, pending investigations into allegations that “unlawful” methods were being used in judicial executions.

In addition to their court applications, one of the inmates also complained that their correspondence with their lawyers and families had been “illegally copied and forwarded” by prison officials to the AGC, which is the opposing party in the case.

Datchinamurthy Kataiah said this gave the Attorney-General an “undue advantage” and sought an order preventing SPS from making copies of their documents.

In its judgment, the Court of Appeal said that the SPS is allowed to make copies of prisoners’ documents under prison┬áregulations.

However, the regulations do not go so far as to permit the SPS to forward the copies, said the three-judge court.

“These are documents and information that the SPS has access to by virtue of its administrative role… to screen and record letters, but there was no legal basis in the form of a positive legal right to forward copies of the same to the AGC,” said judgment, written by Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang.

The court accepted that it was an oversight in the current case and not an attempt by AGC to seek an advantage in the proceedings.

But it added: “By virtue of the AGC’s role as legal adviser to the SPS, it may have access to information that other counsel might not, and it must therefore exercise due caution to avoid the possibility of a mistaken impression that it seeks an undue advantage.”

The inmates in the case – Datchinamurthy, 35, and Gobi Avedian, 32 – were convicted and sentenced to death in separate proceedings for drug-related offences.

While they were on death row, Malaysia-based non-governmental organisation Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) claimed in January that it had information that executions were carried out by kicking the back of the prisoner’s neck if the rope broke.

The pair, represented by lawyer M. Ravi, applied to the High Court for an order to stay their executions and an order to grant immunity to a former prison officer who had given the information to LFL.

At a pre-trial conference, a representative from the AGC told the court: “I am also instructed to state that we are expressly reserving all our rights against Mr Ravi.”

The pair said the statement amounted to a threat against Mr Ravi and sought another order to declare that their constitutional right to counsel had been breached.

The AGC argued that the reservation of rights was common legal parlance, and that the AG was keeping all options open, including the option of seeking costs personally against Mr Ravi.

The pair’s applications were dismissed in February, and they appealed.

Upholding the lower court decision, the Court of Appeal said there was no factual basis to stay the executions as the pair had not produced reliable evidence to support their claims about the execution methods.

The court added that the Attorney-General has declined to grant immunity, and there is no legal basis for the court to interfere unless prosecutorial discretion had been exercised unlawfully.

As for the alleged threat, the court said the statement “might reasonably have been construed as intimidating”.

However, there was no breach of right to counsel as such a right existed only in criminal proceedings, and in any event, Mr Ravi continued to act for the pair, said the court.

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