Anwar: Poorer countries like Indonesia allow physical contact in prison visits

Anwar's lawyer N. Surendran noted that the politician is a former deputy prime minister and was unlikely to be a 'threat' or to be 'wild'. — File pic
Anwar's lawyer N. Surendran noted that the politician is a former deputy prime minister and was unlikely to be a 'threat' or to be 'wild'. — File pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 14 — Imprisoned PKR politician Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim highlighted today that countries that are poorer than Malaysia allow inmates to have physical contact with their visitors.

Addressing the court during the hearing of his bid to be allowed physical contact during visits from his family, Anwar said that it was for the government to look into matters such as the logistics if prisoners in Malaysia were to be allowed prison visits without physical barriers.

"Poorer countries like Indonesia managed to allow… except for the terrorists, hardcore criminals, aggressive, perhaps dangerous, but all prisoners are given as a rule the right to contact visits," he told the High Court here.

Earlier he said that the welfare of prisoners has to be considered.

Anwar, who had said there was 6,000 prisoners in the Sungai Buloh prison where he was held, told the court that he accepted that he was being locked up and had not protested solitary confinement and acknowledged that prison staff are kind to him.

Earlier during the hearing, Anwar's lawyer N. Surendran noted that the politician is a former deputy prime minister and was unlikely to be a "threat" or to be "wild", further noting that the government's lawyers had not claimed that he posed such a threat.

Surendran argued that the Sungai Buloh prison director's March 14 decision to decline physical contact during Anwar's prison visits had breached Anwar's constitutional rights and had also gone against Regulation 3(1) of the Prison Regulations 2000.

"How by denying physical contact do they achieve the objectives of safe custody? So the regulation is very clear, it cannot be more than is necessary," he said when arguing denying physical contact is a restriction that has gone beyond what is required.

Under Regulation 3(1)(a), prison discipline and order is to be maintained with "fairness but firmness and with no more restriction than is required for safe custody and to ensure a well-ordered community life", with allowance to be made for differences in character and discipline of various types of prisoners.

Surendran said Anwar has only been allowed visits from his family once every three weeks with a glass barrier separating them and with the use of a telephone, with family members occasionally allowed physical contact for several minutes instead of throughout the entire session as requested.

Noting the prison authorities' continued failure to provide reasons for its denial of contact visits to Anwar apart from indicating that it would be at their discretion, the lawyer said it meant that the court could infer that there was "no good reason" for such a decision and could then intervene.

Senior federal counsel Shamsul Bolhassan argued that prison authorities had complied with all prison rules and regulations and had not breached the Federal Constitution's Articles 5 and 8. The latter two respectively guarantee the right to life and liberty, and the right to equality.

"There is no special treatment… In fact Article 8 says everybody is to be treated equally, so we say there is no special privileges in respect of prisoners, so they are to be treated equally --- all prisoners," he said.

Shamsul also said that the Anwar and his family were not denied the chance to request physical contact during prison visits, though he emphasised that applications are considered on an individual basis.

Shamsul also confirmed that Anwar was allowed brief physical contact with his family seven times in 2016, while the politician said he has this year been allowed one such visit from his family so far.

Anwar said all such visits were as a result of requests made and that not all requests were allowed.

Surendran said many of the contact visits were random occurrences mostly when Anwar was taken to the hospital or to court for court cases.

Anwar’s lawyer said the "time is right" to change the way prison visits are conducted in Malaysia, if the current situation now where prisoners are not given contact visits is wrong.

During the hearing, High Court judge Datuk Nik Hasmat Nik Mohamad highlighted that her role was not to look into the "merits or demerits" of the prison authorities' decision, but was limited to that of a supervising authority to review if the decision was unreasonable or irrational or falling within the other grounds of a judicial review bid.

"I did think whether that was really necessary, but you have to look at legality and balancing interests of custody, safety and security," she said regarding the physical separation during prison visits.

Last May 18, Anwar and nine of his family members filed for judicial review to challenge the Sungai Buloh prison director's March 14 decision which refused them physical contact with the jailed PKR politician for all prison visits and said that every application for such contact visits will be considered on a case by case basis.

In the lawsuit filed by Anwar's wife, his four daughters and his four grandchildren, they had also named the prison commissioner-general and home minister as respondents.

Citing various arguments including that the prison authorities' decision is unreasonable, arbitrary and unconstitutional, Anwar's lawyers are seeking a court order to quash the decision as well as a court order to compel the prison authorities to allow him contact visits.

The judge will deliver her decision on March 7.

On February 10, 2015, the Federal Court upheld an earlier ruling for the conviction and five-year jail term of Anwar over the 2008 sodomy of his former political aide Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan.

Prisoners in Malaysia are typically allowed a remittance of their jail terms, where one-third of their jail term is taken off and they are given early release.

For Anwar, that would mean he could walk out of prison in 2018, instead of having to serve the entire five-year jail term until 2020.

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