Explained | Why are cases against Mohammad Yunus drawing attention?

Why is Mohammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, being prosecuted by the government of Bangladesh? What is the role of the U.S in these allegations?

October 12, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 08:30 am IST

Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus along with his lawyers at the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) office in Dhaka on October 5.

Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus along with his lawyers at the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) office in Dhaka on October 5. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far:

In May this year, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) filed a case against several members of the board of directors of Grameen Telecom, that included Nobel laureate Dr. Mohammad Yunus, over allegations that the board was involved in misusing funds from the workers. This was one of the several complaints against Mr. Yunus, the 2006 winner of the Nobel peace prize, known for his unique venture of microfinancing in Bangladesh. In the backdrop of a slew of official investigations by the Sheikh Hasina government, an open letter by 175 global leaders that included Nobel laureates called for the withdrawal of judicial cases against Mr. Yunus.

How is the U.S. playing a role?

Over the past several years, the Bangladesh government has faced sustained criticism from the U.S. government, especially from the U.S. State Department for alleged democratic backsliding on human rights issues. In this context, the support from senior figures within the U.S. establishment like the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has made Mr. Yunus a representative figure of U.S.’s diplomatic pressure and a rival to the Sheikh Hasina government. It is this angle that has added an international and political dimension to the cases against Mr. Yunus.

Does he pose a political challenge?

Mohammed Yunus received the Nobel prize in 2006 when Sheikh Hasina was out of power and Bangladesh was being ruled by a military-backed caretaker government. It was also a phase when Bangladesh faced the threat of terrorism repeatedly. In 2007, Mr. Yunus issued an advertisement in a leading newspaper seeking public opinion about him launching a political party. That was the first and the most prominent indication of his political intent. Sheikh Hasina was in jail at that time for nearly 11 months under charges of extortion.

Since the beginning of the second term of Sheikh Hasina’s government in 2009, Mr. Yunus has faced increased scrutiny for his initiatives. In October 2019, a Dhaka court even issued an arrest warrant against him after he failed to appear in person in a case of alleged violation of labour law. His famed model of financial support to women of rural Bangladesh has also come under the scrutiny of the Bangladesh government. However, in the backdrop of the U.S.’s campaign, there has been a hushed demand for a “third alternative” or a government that will not be led by the Awami League or its political rival the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

What is the third alternative?

Bangladesh is in a state of political stalemate between the ruling Awami League and the BNP. On the one hand, there is the Awami League government that is not in favour of holding elections under a caretaker government and on the other hand there is the BNP that wants elections under a caretaker government. Then there is another section in Bangladesh who, with the support from the U.S., has silently championed the third alternative which will be led by Mr. Yunus. The fact that Mr. Yunus enjoys the support of the Americans who critique Sheikh Hasina has made him a political rival of sorts for Ms. Hasina.

What is the PM’s position?

In response to concerns for Mr. Yunus, Sheikh Hasina has said that international observers are welcome to join the probe. More investigators joining the probe will further unmask him, Ms. Hasina said. This, however, does not indicate that political shadow boxing has ended between the two. The investigation that Ms. Hasina’s government began in 2009-11 has reached a critical phase. The trial of Mr. Yunus began on August 22 and focuses on his reluctance to obey the labour laws of Bangladesh. Various outfits like the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments are involved in taking the cases forward. Charges against Yunus include failure of Grameen Telecom in regularising 101 staff members and a workers’ welfare fund. The biggest but unspoken allegation against Mr. Yunus is that he abused his celebrity status to avoid accountability.

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