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Bangladesh’s Anti-corruption Commission Questions Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus

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Bangladesh’s Anti-corruption Commission Questions Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus

Yunus, the famed pioneer of microcredit, is being investigated for embezzlement in a case many see as politically motivated.

Bangladesh’s Anti-corruption Commission Questions Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus

Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus speaks at a special summit hosted by the University of Salford on May 18, 2013.

Credit: University of Salford Press Office

Bangladesh’s official anti-graft watchdog, the Anti-corruption Commission (ACC), on Thursday questioned Muhammad Yunus, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, involving charges of money laundering and fund embezzlement.

Yunus pioneered the use of microcredit to help impoverished people in Bangladesh – a model replicated in many other countries across the world. His legal troubles have drawn international attention, with many observers considering the investigation to be politically motivated.

Yunus emerged from Thursday’s questioning session in the ACC’s headquarters in the nation’s capital, Dhaka, saying that he was not afraid and he did not commit any crimes. Yunus’ lawyer, Abdullah Al Mamun, said the charges against his client were “false and baseless.”

The commission summoned Yunus, chairman of Grameen Telecom, over $2.28 million from the company’s Workers Profit Participation Fund. A dozen other colleagues of Yunus face similar charges in the case.

Grameen Telecom owns 34.20 percent shares of Bangladesh’s largest mobile phone company Grameenphone, a subsidiary of Norway’s telecom giant Telenor. Investigators say Yunus and others misappropriated funds from the workers’ fund.

In August, more than 170 global leaders and Nobel laureates in an open letter urged Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to suspend legal proceedings against Yunus.

The leaders, including former U.S. President Barack Obama, former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and more than 100 Nobel laureates, said in the letter that they were deeply concerned by recent threats to democracy and human rights in Bangladesh.

“We are alarmed that [Yunus] has recently been targeted by what we believe to be continuous judicial harassment,” said the letter.

Hasina responded by saying she would welcome international experts and lawyers to come to Bangladesh to assess the legal proceedings and examine documents involving the charges against Yunus.

In September, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk joined the chorus of those questioning the case, with a spokesperson for the commissioner noting “the continued intimidation and harassment of human rights advocates and civil society leaders through legal proceedings in Bangladesh, including Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus…”

The spokesperson added, “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.”

Other advocacy groups have also expressed strong concerns over the prospect of a fair trial for Yunus. “Muhammad Yunus’ case is emblematic of the beleaguered state of human rights in Bangladesh, where the authorities have eroded freedoms and bulldozed critics into submission,” Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a statement. She denounced the investigations as an “abuse of laws and misuse of the justice system to settle vendettas.”

Callamard’s statement highlighted several instances where Hasina has publicly criticized or even threatened Yunus, including an ominous remark that “many Nobel laureates are now in prison.”

In 1983, Yunus founded Grameen Bank, which gives small loans to entrepreneurs who would not normally qualify for bank loans. The bank’s success in lifting people out of poverty led to similar microfinancing efforts in many other countries.

Hasina’s administration began a series of investigations of Yunus after coming to power in 2008. She became enraged when Yunus announced he would form a political party in 2007 when the country was run by a military-backed government and she was in prison, although he did not follow through on the plan.

Yunus had earlier criticized politicians in the country, saying they are only interested in money. Hasina called him a “bloodsucker” and accused him of using force and other means to recover loans from poor rural women as head of Grameen Bank.

Hasina’s government began a review of the 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 his Nobel Prize award and royalties from a book.

He later faced other charges involving other companies he created, including Grameen Telecom.

Yunus went on trial separately on August 22 on charges of violating labor laws. The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments brought the case against Yunus and three other people in 2021, alleging discrepancies during an inspection of Grameen Telecom, including a failure to regularize positions for 101 staff members and to establish a workers’ welfare fund.