Anwar Ibrahim is assisted by medical professionals while on a visit to his mother shortly before she died
In a much expected move by the Malaysian government, jailed former deputy prime minster Anwar Ibrahim has been given the choice on whether he will receive an operation performed by local doctors or return to his prison cell. The option is in actual fact no option at all, for neither is for the better. Yet, Anwar who is suffering from a slipped disc, is damned either way and if he refuses to choose, then the government will choose for Anwar.
Health Minister Chua Jui Meng said that it is up to the prison authorities to decide when to take the prisoner back should he refuse to have the operation. "The choice is his. We can't keep him forever at the hospital," said Chua.
Chua said that Anwar will be returned to his "fully furnished and well-ventilated cell" and be given the minimum treatment if he refuses an operation. In an apparent plea for Anwar to let the local doctors to operate on him, Chua explained that this is the seventh time the Kuala Lumpur Hospital is offering the options of four different surgical methods; endoscopic disectomy, laser disc decompression, microsurgical approach and open surgery.
Chua made the remarks during a briefing with 140 foreign diplomats. Chua, joined by Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, the government's decision to refuse Anwar's request for treatment at a clinic in Germany was because Malaysian laws prohibit prisoners from travelling overseas.
"If he is a free man, he can go anywhere he wants to for medical treatment. But he is a prisoner and our laws state clearly that all prisoners must be treated locally," he said. Chua also said the government did not deny Anwar his medical rights but had given him "extraordinary privileges" not accorded to the other prisoners.
"He stayed at the KLH for 154 days, the longest-staying patient ever in our hospitals for a slipped disc. He had a panel of 11 consultants and was admitted to the first-class ward. He wasn't even handcuffed to his bed," the minister said.
Also during the briefing, two doctors appointed by the Health Ministry discussed his medical condition.. Dr S Jeyaindran, who is responsible for Anwar's medical needs since he was imprisoned in 1999, said he believed the slipped disc was caused by the vigorous physical exercises his patient did in the prison.
"He played sepak-takraw and we believe he injured himself during one of his games in mid-1999. Maybe he kicked the rattan ball too hard," said Jeyaindran. Sepak takraw is a Malaysian game in which a rattan ball is kicked upwards and kept from dropping to the ground.
Syed Hamid said the briefing was to provide the diplomats with accurate information on Anwar's healthcare, insisting it is a "purely medical issue" and not a political issue as claimed by the opposition.
"It is good for us to give them correct information so that they can report the truth. It is also to show that we are transparent in governing the country. We do not want people to simply read Web sites and come up with their own speculations on the issue," said Syed Hamid.
He was answering to questions comparing the briefing to that Anwar's wife, National Justice Party President Wan Azizah Wan Ismail gave about a month ago.
The minister had lambasted the foreign diplomats for attending the briefing by Azizah as he claimed that they were consorting with the opposition.
"Under existing diplomatic convention, foreign missions only deal with the government because the international relationship is between one state and another. The opposition is a political party, you cannot put us and them together for comparison," he said.
The US Embassy defended its actions stating that the closed door briefing "was a common diplomatic practice worldwide". Singapore stated "it was part of the diplomat's duties to follow political developments" in the countries where they are based while Indonesia apologized in many words.
Meanwhile, Anwar's lawyer Sankara Nair confirmed that his client had received the letter from the Hospital Kuala Lumpur (HKL) Dr Abdul Razak Syed Kechik requesting him to sign a letter of consent.
The letter, dated April 25th , said that Anwar would be liable for all risks if he does not agree to be operated on and even if he were to agree to the operation, all liability is still Anwar's. Sankara said that there has been no deadline given but the hospital has allowed for Anwar to think it over as his client had wanted to discuss it with his family.
The letter listed the risks Anwar faces if he does not undergo the operation, such as as kidney pain, leg pain, temporary or permanent loss of leg nerves, loss of use of the legs and other functions.
Before the government put this option forward, Azizah had held a press conference a fornight ago, stating that it is not Anwar who had delayed his treatment but the stumbling blocks placed by the government had resulted in delaying the treatment.
But Anwar's wife refuted the government's claims, saying that it was in fact the government which has resulted in the delay of his treatment.
"If there is anybody who has delayed the surgery, it is not Anwar but the government - by imposing onerous and unreasonable conditions by any standards on Feb 10 when we first applied for Dr Hoogland to come to Kuala Lumpur to examine Anwar," said Wan Azizah, who stated that she will hold Chua liable should Anwar suffer any permanent disability.
Anwar's lawyer had also rejected the claims that Anwar was receiving better treatment than the other prisoners, stating that the authorities had placed Anwar in a first class ward purely for strategic and security purposes.
"The first-class ward, we believe, is an absolute necessity in line with the prison department's security need - as Anwar has always been kept isolated from other prisoners, even at the Sungai Buloh prison. The reasons for not handcuffing is purely medical as it would be medically inexpedient to handcuff a back injury patient to his bed as such patients need to shift their positions regularly," said Sankara.
As to Anwar's right to treatment overseas under the Federal constitution, Sankara said that Anwar is deemed to have this right.
"We rely on the legal maxim where an act is silent or does not specifically prohibit a certain act, then the benefit is given to the party who is seeking the right. The Prisons Act, which governs the prisoners in this country, is silent on overseas and specialized treatment not available in Malaysia."
On the worries of the government that Anwar might not return to Malaysia, Azizah had said, "I will make sure he gets on the plane".
The former deputy premier was sacked unceremoniously by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammad and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment on charges of immoral conduct and corruption. Before his sacking, Anwar was expected to take over the reins from Mahathir, who has been the PM for 18 years.
Anwar has denied all charges, saying that the Premier and others concocted the charges to safeguard their wealth and possessions. The former deputy prime minister requested that German spinal surgeon Dr Thomas Hoogland of Munich conduct the endoscopic spinal surgery. However, Hoogland has since ruled out operating on Anwar, citing unwarranted interference of the government and mistrust by the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital (KLGH) director.
Zakiah Koya is a reporter for Malaysiakini.com, an independent Malaysian news Web site.