Court rejects remand plea and fixes Thursday to hear her bail petition
A Dhaka court has turned down a police petition to quiz Prothom Alo Senior Correspondent Rozina Islam in custody in a case filed under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act and sent her to jail.
She was taken to Kashimpur Women’s Central Jail in Gazipur as the court is scheduled to hold a hearing on her bail petition on Thursday.
Charges of “stealing” official documents and “taking photographs” of documents were brought against Rozina Islam, an award-winning investigative journalist, who was kept confined allegedly by some Health Ministry officials for five long hours inside an official's room at the Bangladesh Secretariat on Monday.
A Health Ministry deputy secretary filed the case against her at Shahbagh police station hours after Islam was finally brought to the thana on Monday night, ending the five-hour alleged forcible confinement.
A huge contingent of police escorted her to Dhaka Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday morning and the investigation officer sought a five-day remand.
The court of Metropolitan Magistrate Muhammad Jasim fixed July 15 for submission of the probe report in the case filed against the journalist under the Bangladesh Penal Code and Official Secrets Act.
The court issued the order, accepting the first investigation report (FIR) of the case filed by the Health Services Division at Shahbagh police station on Monday.
After the hearing, while being taken to jail, Rozina Islam told journalists that she was being treated wrongfully for her reports on the Health Ministry. However, the law enforcement agencies did not allow her to talk to the reporters any further.
Later in the evening, the ministry formed a three-member committee to investigate the incident at the secretariat. The committee has been given three working days to submit its findings.
The Bangla daily journalist is well known for unearthing corruption involving the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and other government entities.
Her recent reports on corruption in recruitment at the Health Ministry and irregularities involving huge amounts of money in the procurement of health equipment during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic have drawn public attention.
On Monday, the reporter was arrested for allegedly attempting to illegally “collect sensitive government documents and taking photos of them” from the secretariat.
Rozina Islam has rejected all allegations after being arrested, stating: "I was, in fact, harassed at the secretariat."
The Prothom Alo journalist was handed over to police at around 9:45pm on Monday after being confined at the Secretariat for over five hours.
Later an FIR was filed against her under the Official Secrets Act and Sections 379 and 411 of The Penal Code on a complaint filed by the Health Services Division at Shahbagh police station.
Since the confinement and filing of the case, protests ts have been voiced throughout the country -- both by journalists and people from different professions -- demanding Rozina Islam’s release and punishment of those involved in her harassment. Journalists and journalist forums boycotted all health ministry events on Tuesday.
Health Ministry authorities claimed that the journalist had entered the room of the private secretary (PS) to the secretary of the Health Services Division between 3pm and 3:30pm “without permission” and reportedly took photos of some sensitive documents.
Some of those were allegedly recovered from her by the staff of the Health Ministry, including the PS, Additional Secretary of the Ministry, and police constable Mizanur Rahman.
In the case statement, the ministry claimed that the documents were related to government negotiations to buy Covid-19 vaccines. The disclosure of the documents that contained non-disclosure agreements with other countries would harm bilateral relations with the countries, it claimed.
Proceedings in court
Metropolitan Public Prosecutor Abdullah Abu represented the state in the hearing seeking remand, while Islam’s lawyers Ehsanul Haque Samaji, Ashraf Ul Alam and Prashanta Kumar Karmakar opposed the remand petition.
Ehsanul Haque said that journalists had been subjected to such ill-treatment while performing their professional duties. “What has been said in the case has no logic at all.”
“This news [irregularities of the health ministry] is not top-secret, but an open secret. Rozina has been mentally and physically abused in the name of arrest by the ministry officials,” he told the court.
The lawyer presented related laws and High Court directives about remand. He prayed to the court to grant her bail.
The judge said that it was not conventional to scrap the remand petition and award bail on the same day. He asked the petitioner to hold a hearing on the bail petition on the next hearing day. Later, upon discussion with both parties, the court fixed Thursday for a bail hearing.
Ehsanul Haque told reporters that, in the case statement, the ministry did not describe the documents they were talking about. The seizure list presented to the court showed that the documents were presented not by the accused but by a government official himself.
The two sections of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act mentioned in the case are also self-contradictory, he said.
Minister blames journalist
The health minister on Tuesday claimed that his ministry had not confined the Prothom Alo reporter for hours.
“After half an hour of catching her, they handed her [Rozina Islam] to the local police at the office. Whatever happened after that is a matter for the police,” Zahid Maleque added.
Regarding the documents in question, he said: “These are non-disclosure documents. If they are leaked, it will violate state commitments. We might not get the vaccines. It could cause great harm to this country and its people. These are secret documents and they should not have been taken away.”
Zahid Maleque said two senior officials dealt with the issue initially, adding: “Later, when the matter of state secrets was revealed, they brought in the police.”
The health minister claimed that Rozina Islam entered an empty room next to the secretary’s office and took some government documents, which she concealed in her bag. She also allegedly photographed them on her mobile phone.
He questioned how the journalist had entered a room where she was not supposed to be.
Asked if the ministry had any proof of Islam taking photos or the documents, he said the proof was in the journalist’s cellphone and said: “There is no CCTV camera inside the room. But there is a CCTV camera in the passage.”
What happened at the ministry
Journalists rushed to the ministry’s room where Rozina Islam was confined. They found police personnel in the room where she was being illegally detained.
The journalists tried to talk to Health Secretary Lokman Hossain Miah to know what actually had happened but he did not respond.
The Prothom Alo reporter said that she had gone to meet the secretary and was asked to wait at the PS’s chamber and all of a sudden, police and officials came to the room and confined her.
A number of video clips went viral on social media where the harassment was witnessed, in the name of searching for documents. Later she fell ill around 6pm and journalists requested that she be taken to the hospital, but officials rejected their plea.
Health Ministry officials turned Rozina Islam over to the police after reportedly confining her for five hours. She was later sued.