Mithu fled abroad with ill-gotten wealth from health sector

Motazzerul Islam alias Mithu

Former director of CMSD Md Shahidullah, before his death, had informed the government in writing that the health sector was rife with uncontrolled corruption in procurement, in the grips of the ‘Mithu syndicate’. The government’s intelligence agencies, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and several other agencies took note, but by then the leader of the ‘syndicate’, Motazzerul Islam alias Mithu, had fled the country.

He has bought a house in Bronxville, an affluent area near New York. The house costs over 2 million dollars (Tk 16 crore), according to sources there. He owns shares on Motel 6, a luxury motel in Atlanta. He frequently visits Australia on business. He drives a Rolls Royce.

The director of CMSD (Central Medical Stores Depot), Shahidullah, passed away on 25 July after contracting coronavirus. Earlier, on 30 May, in a letter to the public administration secretary, he had said that Motazzerul Islam alias Mithu, in collusion with government officials, was involved in everything from the planning of the budget to procurement. They made CMSD make the purchases in accordance to the lists. Mithu had several companies, some in his name and some in the names of others. And it was these companies that participated in the tender processes.

Md Shahidullah had said CMSD had placed a notice for the purchase of some equipment for Suhrawardy Medical College Hospital. A certain company collected Tk 4.5 billion (Tk 450 crore) for completing this purchase, but in actuality the equipment was never delivered to Suhrawardy Medical College. The company that was given the work, and all the other companies that competed in the tender, belonged to Motazzerul Islam alias Mithu.

No one can give an accurate account of how much money Motazzerul has made over the past 10 years from the health sector through underhand dealings. There has never been any investigations into these irregularities. Every year around Tk 7 billion to Tk 8 billion (Tk 700 crore to Tk 800 crore) is spent on procurement of equipment in the health sector. After AFM Ruhul Haque became health minister, Motazzerul Islam alias Mithu got the work to supply equipment to 18 medical colleges.

Where is Mithu now?

Inquiries reveal that Motazzerul Islam, whose name had appeared in the Panama Papers in 2016, now lives in the US, as an immigrant in the investors’ quota.

He has bought a house in Bronxville, an affluent area near New York. The house costs over 2 million dollars (Tk 16 crore), according to sources there. He owns shares on Motel 6, a luxury motel in Atlanta. He frequently visits Australia on business. He drives a Rolls Royce. His companies in Dhaka, including Lexicon Merchandise, are quiet at the moment.

The present director of CMSD Abu Hena Morshed Zaman told Prothom Alo that he had not seen any one of the Mithu syndicate at CMSD after he took over.

However, sources have said, the government has taken initiative to probe allegations only now that it is certain that Motazzerul Islam alias Mithu will not be found anymore. After all, he had the blessings of top persons on the government. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) had collected information about him before, but had found nothing wrong.

Records show that investigations against Motazzerul Islam alias Mithu had begun in 2013. ACC made a few inquiries when a report of the Controller General of Accounts showed discrepancies of Tk 3 billon (Tk 300 crore) in Mugda Hospital alone. In 2016 his name appeared in the Panama Papers for allegedly siphoning off huge amounts of money abroad. In 2017 ACC gave its final report on him, finding no proof of the allegations.

Attempts were made to contact health minister Zahid Maleque regarding how serious the government was about investigating the allegations against Motazzerul. He did not reply to phone calls or SMS. Motazzerul Islam did not have good relations with just this health minister alone, but also with past health ministers of the Awami League rule.

Who is Mithu?

Motazzerul Islam was known as ‘Mithu contractor’. He is from Mahipur, on the banks of the river Teesta in Gangachara upazila or Rangpur. It was learnt from his relatives that he probably did not study after SSC (secondary school). He was a small contractor for the local government and the Water Development Board.

Motazzerul owns a lot of land in Rangpur. He had land on the chars (river islands) in his own names and under other names. He has a modern three-storey building next to Rangpur Medical College, land in the town’s Babu Khan area and a multi-storey building under construction in the Dhap area of the town. He has established a hospital in the name of his father Kasiruddin. A road in the Babu Khan area has been named VIP Motazzerul Islam Mithu Road.

According to intelligence agencies and other sources, he entered the health sector contract business through the former health minister Ruhul Haque. And there has been no looking back for him since then. Along with Ruhul Haque’s son Ziaul Haque, he set up the Central International Medical College in 2011 at Ring Road, Shyamoli, in the city. Dhaka University filed a case against the college at time for admitting students without the required approval. Ziaul Haque later withdrew his shares following criticism. Health ministers have been changed twice since then, but Motazzerul’s position always remained strong.

Explaining how Motazzerul Islam got the health sector under his control, the late director of CMSD Md Shahidullah said, in his letter to the public administration secretary, that when he joined as director on 22 November last year, he was immediately given a list for purchases to be made. The additional secretary of the health ministry at the time, Sirajul Islam, had verbally told him, “There is a request from the health minister and his son to finalise the purchases according to the list and the price list.” The Mithu syndicate had a monopoly when Mohammad Nasim had been health minister, too.

When allegations arose against additional secretary Sirajul Islam, he was transferred to the railway ministry. He did not respond to phone calls when attempts were made to contact him on Wednesday.

As approval of the health ministry and the health directorate is necessary for all CMSD purchases, the Mithu syndicate would ensure that persons of their choice were transferred there. If the procurement process was not to their liking, they even had purchase orders cancelled, officials transferred.

In his letter, Md Shahidullah said Motazzerul Islam set up a company, MediTech Imaging Ltd. Its director was Humayun Kabir alias Pitu. This Humayun had previously been with Lexicon, a different company belonging to Motazzerul.

After the outbreak of coronavirus, the additional secretary at the time, Sirajul Islam, verbally told the CMSD director equipment needed to be purchased for ICUs. Equipment which could be provided by MediTech Imaging was included in the list for purchase. Many companies responded to the tender notice which was published in the newspapers in this regard. As MediTech Imaging’s equipment was high in price and low in quality, these were dropped from selection. Motazzerul was furious, the letter stated.

A former official of an international financial agency had witnessed close hand Motazzerul alias Mithu's rise. This agency is closely involved with Bangladesh’s health sector. He told Prothom Alo that he had heard about Motazzerul’s close relations with AFM Ruhul Haque back in 2009-10. He was almost always seen at the minister’s office. At the time, the Health Directorate’s hospital division director ABM Abdul Hannan was known to be a man of the Mithu group. A demand note would be prepared at the ministry or the directorate and sent to the superintendents of various hospitals around the country and then they would be put under pressure to send the demand letters to Dhaka. The minister was furious with senior secretary at the time, Md Humayun Kabir, for holding up a bill on certain purchases. The secretary had to later leave the health ministry and later resigned.

Former caretaker government adviser M Hafizuddin Khan said now there is all this activity against him simply because he has gone overseas. He said that a notice can be issued to bring Motazzerul back to the country. If investigations prove him to be guilty, then his assets here should be frozen and he must face the law.

The official went on to say that Mithu got similar favours when Mohammad Nasim was health minister too. He would get this work through 10-12 of the companies that he had formed.

In 2016 ACC made inquiries into companies owned by Motazzerul and his relatives. These included Lexicon Merchandise, Lexicon Merchandise and Technotrade, CR Merchandise, Future Trade, Lexicon IT, Technotrade, LR Aviation, GEF and Trading, Meherba International, Creative Trade, Technotrade, Bellair Aviation, GES and Trading, Hab International, Lexicon Hospitalet and NorthTech Ltd.

Speaking to Prothom Alo on 29 July, a contractor who supplies health sector equipment, said that he no longer did business with the government because of the Mithu syndicate. In fact, he said, many had dropped out of this business for the same reason.

The contractor said CMSD would give the tender notices in such a way that no one else could bid. They would sometimes ask for the price of 200 different items in one go. Even GE, Phillips, Hitachi, Toshiba and Siemens do not supply so many items in one go in this country. Motazzerul alias Mithu would procure the products from different companies and sell these to the government at double or triple the actual price.

Then again, the tender notices often would call for exactly the equipment with details that Motazzerul could supply. Then no other company could participate in the bidding. The contractor, who is the representative of a reputed international company, said even this yet a tender notice was floated for a large amount of equipment for Sylhet MAG Osmani Medical College and Rajshahi Medical College Hospital. Motazzerul alias Mithu alone took part in the bidding through his various companies.

Govt is well aware

The government is well aware of all this corruption. The Controller General of Accounts reports show discrepancies of Tk 3 billion (Tk 300 crore) in 2013-14 at Mugda Hospital. The Mugda Hospital authorities had called for tenders for equipment in three packages and five lots. Tender documents were bought by Future Trade, GES and Trading, 3i, Ardent System, Biotech International, Market Lab, Med Equip and Informed Technology. The first three were declared qualified and finally Future Tech got the contract. The owner of this company is Motazzerul’s wife Nishat Farzana. The other bidding companies also belonged to Motazzerul. Prothom Alo carried a report at the time, ‘Tk 400 crore unaccounted in health sector procurement’.

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When Prothom Alo asked if he knew Motazzerul alias Mithu, AFM Ruhul Haque reacted angrily, “I have promoted physicians, set up community clinics, but Prothom Alo does not see all that. It just sees Mithu. I do not know Mithu. I do not know any contractors.”

Out of reach

A certain agency’s files reveal that even though Mithu used his close ties with AFM Ruhul Haque to enter the health sector, he developed good relations with all who came along afterwards too.

A former official of the health ministry told Prothom Alo, Mohammad Nasim would initially avoid Motazzerul alias Mithu because of Mithu’s dubious reputation. Then Motazzerul alias Mithu built up an ICU for a certain force for free at the time and his photographs appeared with important persons of the state who attended the inauguration event. Mohammad Nasim wasn’t there, however. Then Motazzerul alias Mithu got into contact with Nasim’s son Tomal Mansur and got involved in health sector procurement. He also had contact with Mohammad Nasim’s APS Mir Mosharraf. Tomal Mansur is presently in the US. A message was sent to him over Messenger asking for a statement, but he did not reply.

Allegations emerged in ACC investigations of Tk 2.75 billion (Tk 275 crore) being misappropriated in the purchase of low quality unusable equipment for Shaheed M Mansur Ali Medical College and Hospital in Sirajanj. Mir Mosharraf Hossain was questioned last year about his alleged involvement in the deal.

Records of a law enforcement agency say that Motazzerul alias Mithu had close contact with a top official of ACC. Motazzerul takes care of that official’s wife, daughter and son-in-law who live in the US.

Attempts were made to contact Motazzerul Islam alias Mithu in this regard, but he could not be located. Persons who are updated about him, told Prothom Alo that the families of many influential and senior government officials live in the US. His strategy is to keep them in hand to get business.

Former caretaker government adviser M Hafizuddin Khan told Prothom Alo that this was a strategy. Now there is all this activity against him simply because he has gone overseas. There has been news of so much corruption in the health sector since the outbreak of coronavirus. The government’s response is hardly satisfactory. He said that a notice can be issued to bring Motazzerul back to the country. If investigations prove him to be guilty, then his assets here should be frozen and he must face the law.