A stream of visitors, "unprison-like" furniture and countless out-of-jail trips were among the privileges accorded to PKR chief Anwar Ibrahim when he was serving his sentence after losing his sodomy appeal in 2015, MalaysiaNow can reveal as a debate brews over the issue of special treatment for Najib Razak who recently became the first former Malaysian prime minister to be sent to prison.
Officials familiar with dealing with "VIP guests" in prison over the last decades also spoke about how Anwar received "better treatment than ordinary prisoners".
In 2015, the Federal Court upheld Anwar's sodomy conviction and sentenced him to six years in jail.
The Pakatan Harapan chairman was released barely a week after the coalition's electoral victory in May 2018, following a royal pardon backed by the new government of Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
But a source involved in coordinating Anwar's jail stay said during the 40-plus months he was serving his sentence, the politician spent a considerable amount of time outside the prison walls.
"About one-third was spent in a hospital ward for various health complaints, which means prison SOPs were suspended and the ban on communications was also difficult to enforce," the source told MalaysiaNow, giving a detailed breakdown of Anwar's out-of-jail visits during his three and half years as an inmate of Sungai Buloh Prison.
These visits included emergency applications to attend to family matters as well as court appearances.
"After November 2017, Anwar was no longer seen at Sungai Buloh Prison because he was held at the Cheras Rehabilitation Hospital until his release in May 2018," said another source.
Checks by MalaysiaNow showed that the politician spent about six months at the hospital.
"I think the top brass decided to allow him to stay on in hospital because it’s far more comfortable than prison. Being in hospital is not like being in prison.
"No prisoner was taken to hospital for check-ups or treatment as often as he was. He was taken out for hospital stays many times. You can check the Sungai Buloh Prison records to confirm this," said the same source.
Prisoners are rarely taken to hospitals outside of the prison premises unless their condition is serious enough to warrant it.
MalaysiaNow has meanwhile learnt that Anwar received regular visits from top doctors assigned by the health ministry to monitor his health and nutrition.
One of them was the late Dr S Jeyaindran, who retired as deputy health director-general in May 2018.
Besides hospital stays, Anwar was also allowed to attend the funerals of relatives, a privilege rarely, if ever, accorded to ordinary prisoners.
Checks by MalaysiaNow showed that Anwar was also allowed to leave prison under escort to visit sick relatives who had been hospitalised.
These included his stepmother, brother, grandchild, wife, and father-in-law.
This is in contrast with the jail experience of rights activist and lawyer P Uthayakumar, who related how he was denied permission to visit his dying mother when he was serving a two-year sentence for sedition.
"The only day I cried in prison was when my beloved mother passed away and the prison authorities had, the week before, refused my application to visit her in hospital," Uthaya was quoted as saying by The Star soon after his release in 2014.
"Such privileges could not have been given without the green light from the then home minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, or even from Najib, who was the prime minister at that time."
As a prisoner in hospital, Anwar also received a stream of visitors including Najib, Zahid and their spouses.
"It was from this hospital room that he was actively engaged in pre-GE planning with his party comrades.
"Prison rules were almost thrown out. In fact, it is public knowledge that he was also on the phone with Najib at one point," said a PKR MP, referring to claims by Anwar that Najib had phoned him on the night of the 14th general election, offering the PKR leader a deal to thwart the collapse of the Barisan Nasional government.
Out of jail
But being away from the gloomy prison surroundings was not the only perk of being a "VIP convict", said another source familiar with prison SOPs.
"At Sungai Buloh, Datuk Seri was given a special single room, unlike other prisoners who were forced to share a cell due to overcrowding.
"He had a fan, a bed, and a chair and table which ordinary prisoners don’t get. He even had a special sitting commode."
The source added that Anwar was also assigned "a special prisoner-cook".
"He had plenty of books and magazines usually brought in by his lawyers, who always came in at least twice a week," the source said, adding that it was open knowledge that lawyers acting for Anwar were smuggling in press statements and letters, especially in the wake of the opposition's move to launch a united campaign at the 14th general election.
A former warden confirmed the claim, saying it was a challenge to implement jail rules when attorneys were involved.
"These lawyers, they took advantage of lawyers' visiting hours to do these things.
"But most of the time, we closed one eye to these goings-on. Remember, Anwar was never subjected to disciplinary punishment for breaking prison rules by making press releases," the 63-year-old told MalaysiaNow on strict condition of anonymity.
MalaysiaNow has been unable to obtain a response from several lawyers who represented Anwar during his imprisonment.
When contacted, one of them said they were still bound by attorney-client privilege despite no longer representing him.
The prison department meanwhile has repeatedly denied speculation surrounding Najib's imprisonment.
This includes a strong denial of a rumour making the rounds on social media that the former leader had been placed in a house within the prison grounds.
"This is fake information. Stop spreading it," the department said.
Najib began serving a 12-year jail sentence on Aug 23, after the Federal Court upheld his conviction for charges of misappropriating RM42 million in SRC International funds.
He has since filed a judicial review as well as a petition for pardon.