The Malaysian Bar is alarmed by the rising number of Covid-19 cases in the country in recent days, especially in prisons in Kedah and Sabah.
Currently the Alor Setar prison in Kedah has been placed under a targeted enhanced movement control order for 14 days due to the sudden spike in infections. Earlier last month, cases from particular clusters in Kedah and Sabah have surged, originally stemming from prison populations.
It is common knowledge the virus can spread rapidly in overcrowded and confined settings. Inmates are kept in packed spaces, which make physical distancing almost impossible, creating a hotbed for transmission of the virus.
In light of the severity of the current situation, the Malaysian Bar strongly calls for enforcement authorities to consider releasing detainees for less serious crimes on bail instead of keeping them in lock-ups.
This is particularly relevant for individuals who are at a higher risk of contracting the virus, such as older people, people with disabilities, and those with pre-existing conditions or compromised immunity.
We also urge that the courts exercise judicial discretion by taking into consideration the challenging situation created by the pandemic when deciding the bail sum for an accused individual. This is especially relevant for those who are unable to afford the necessary amount required to post bail and will end up being remanded in prisons.
The courts should consider alternative sentencing protocols other than imprisonment for the appropriate offences. The punishment should fit the crime, and keeping people in places of detention in this climate opens the possibility of accelerated spread of the virus.
The Malaysian Bar proposes that the government and prison authorities ensure that sufficient stocks of face masks are made available for all detainees to prevent the transmission of the virus.
Strict adherence to government-imposed standard operating procedures must be complied with when detainees are brought before the courts. Lawyers and members of the public are reminded that they too must adhere to these procedures as well, to ensure the health and safety of everyone.
Salim Bashir is president of the Malaysian Bar
This piece is reproduced from here and has been edited for style only.