Questionable Conduct by Singapore Prison and AGC Could Have Undermined Death Row Inmate’s Case

21 September 2020


It has come to our attention that privileged information between death row inmate Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin and his lawyer was sent, without his consent, by the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) to the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC). 

This is deeply alarming and raises numerous troubling questions. 

The breach only came to light on 18 September 2020, when the AGC sent a letter to the court. In it, it admitted that in 2018, while Syed’s case was pending before the Court of Appeal, it was forwarded five letters written by Syed — four to his uncle, and one to his then-defence 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.

We note that this isn’t the only recorded case of the SPS forwarding inmates’ documents and correspondence to the AGC. 

In August 2020, the Court of Appeal commented on this practice after Datchinamurthy a/l Kataiah, another death row inmate, complained that prison authorities had forwarded to the AGC, documents brought to him by his family.

While the court acknowledged that the law allows the SPS to screen and copy letters and documents for the “good management and government” of prisons, it stated that: 

“There is an expectation of confidentiality in a letter or document shared between private parties. These are documents and information that the SPS has access to by virtue of its administrative role under reg 127A 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.”

We second the Court of Appeal’s statement that the AGC has “a duty to safeguard the rights of prisoners in the custody of the SPS.” 

We also call on the prison to respect the rights and privacy of the inmates in their custody.

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.

The actions of the SPS and AGC raise serious doubts about respect for privacy and privileged communication. They should be carefully scrutinised as confidence in our judicial system is at stake. We call for an independent inquiry into the matter: 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. Were inmates who have already been executed affected by similar breaches?  

Given the seriousness of these latest revelations, we also call for a moratorium on executions. As the Court of Appeal quoted in Datchinamurthy’s case: “it is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”. 

Community Action Network

Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign

Media Contact:

Rachel Zeng, Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign