Why cracking down on Nobel laureate Yunus?

Global leaders have condemned a litany of charges against Bangladeshi microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus as judicial harassment and warned of a larger threat to democracy. The government has rejected the concerns.

Over 170 global leaders and Nobel laureates have urged Bangladesh‘s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to suspend legal proceedings against economist Muhammad Yunus, who was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his social development work but has faced legal pressure at home for years.

In an open letter dated August 27, leaders, including former US President Barack Obama, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and more than 100 Nobel laureates, said they were deeply concerned by threats to democracy and human rights in Bangladesh.

“One of the threats to human rights that concerns us in the present context is the case of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Prof. Muhammad Yunus. We are alarmed that he has recently been targeted by what we believe to be continuous judicial harassment,” the letter read.

On Tuesday, the UN also voiced alarm at using legal proceedings in the South Asian country to intimidate and harass rights advocates and civil society leaders, including Yunus.

“Yunus has faced harassment and intimidation for almost a decade. He currently faces two trials with potential prison sentences, one on charges of violating labor laws, and the second for alleged corruption,” UN rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said in a statement.

“While Yunus will have the opportunity to defend himself in court, we are concerned that smear campaigns against him, often emanating from the highest levels of government, risk undermining his right to a fair trial and due process in line with international standards.”

However, Bangladesh’s Law Minister Anisul Huq rejected these concerns and told DW that such statements attempt external interference in the country’s judiciary.

What are Yunus’ legal troubles?

Yunus and Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, which he founded, have been commended globally for pioneering the use of microcredit to help impoverished people.

Microcredit is a small loan on easy terms provided to people in developing areas that enables entrepreneurship and can help people, especially poor women, escape poverty.

Yunus founded Grameen Bank in 1983, and it is considered the first modern microcredit institution. The idea spread worldwide and is credited with helping millions of people work their way out of poverty.

However, when Sheikh Hasina came to power as Bangladeshi prime minister in 2009, she called Yunus a “bloodsucker.” She accused him of using force to recover loans from poor rural women as head of Grameen Bank.

Hasina’s government began reviewing the Grameen Bank’s activities in 2011, and Yunus was fired as managing director for allegedly violating government retirement regulations.

He was put on trial in 2013 on charges of receiving money without government permission, including from his Nobel Prize award and royalties from a book.

He later faced charges involving other companies he created, including Grameen Telecom, part of Bangladesh’s largest mobile phone company, Grameen Phone, and a subsidiary of Norwegian telecom giant Telenor.

Eighteen former Grameen Telecom workers filed a case against Yunus, accusing him of siphoning off their job benefits last month. Separately, Yunus went on trial on charges of violating labor laws in the same month. He and 13 others were also named in a case brought by the Anti-Corruption Commission, accusing them of embezzling funds from Grameen Telecom.

“In total, 198 court cases have been filed against Professor Yunus so far,” his lawyer Abdullah Al Mamun told DW.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
Hasina’s government began reviewing the Grameen Bank’s activities in 2011, and Yunus was fired as managing director for allegedly violating government retirement regulationsImage: Anupam Nath/AP/picture alliance

Why is Hasina targeting Yunus?

Some political observers in Bangladesh say Hasina became infuriated when Yunus announced he would form a political party in 2007 when a military-backed government ran the country. However, briefly after the announcement, the economist retreated from his plan and hasn’t since shown any interest in politics.

“Our PM still believes Yunus is behind every problem she faces internationally, including the World Bank’s withdrawal of the country’s largest bridge loan and recent international pressure for a free and fair election. We simply don’t know why she thinks so because no credible supporting evidence has even been offered by the government,” Asif Nazrul, a law professor at the University of Dhaka, told DW.

Yunus’ lawyer, Al Mamun, thinks the lawsuits are meant to defame the economist’s global reputation as an innovator in solving critical social issues.

“There was no reason to file a criminal lawsuit against him on labor law issues. It could merely be a civil lawsuit. Also, he was accused in a case of embezzling funds, but he had no connection to it. Both cases were directly filed by the government against him,” the lawyer said.

Bangladesh backsliding democratically?

Law Minister Huq told DW that the lawsuits were not meant to harass the Nobel laureate. “Those who faced injustice sought remedy at the court. It’s their right as citizens of Bangladesh. It will be decided at the court trial whether he committed any crime,” Huq said.

But Nazrul said he has serious doubts about the independence of the nation’s legal system. He believes that the Hasina government has complete control over the investigative agency, prosecution agency, and the judiciary.

“The posting, transfer, leave, and promotion of the trial judges are under the control of the Law Ministry, and it is very easy for the government to exert its influence over the trial system through its control. The longer its tenure is, the greater its control is over the judiciary,” Nazrul said.

The last two general elections, held in 2014 and 2018, were marred by allegations of massive vote rigging and intimidation of opposition activists, charges denied by Hasina’s government. Her party won both controversial elections, and she remained in power.

However, rights groups have accused Bangladesh’s longest-serving prime minister of using law enforcement agencies and the judiciary to silence opposition voices since she came to power 14 years ago.

Many opposition leaders, civil society members, and human rights defenders have faced numerous politically motivated lawsuits that force them to spend most of their time in courtrooms or jail.

 –By Arafatul Islam, https://www.dw.com/