Global leaders call on Bangladesh to end ‘harassment’ of Nobel winner Yunus

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Global leaders call on Bangladesh to end ‘harassment’ of Nobel winner Yunus Nobel Peace Prize laureates Muhammad Yunus (center) and Nadia Murad (right), join Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, at the #Notalone event at the World Meeting on Human Fraternity in St. Peter's Square at The Vatican, June 10, 2023.
Andrew Medichini/AP

UPDATED at 1:52 p.m. EDT on 2023-08-29

Former U.S. President Barack Obama joined more than 100 Nobel laureates in signing an open letter Monday to Bangladesh’s prime minister urging her to stop her government’s “continuous judicial harassment” of Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.

Sheikh Hasina’s government, for the past 13 years, “has been persecuting” Yunus, the founder of the micro-credit lending Grameen Bank, as part of a “broader assault on human rights,”  according to a statement released with the letter signed by Obama and 174 other global leaders.

Hasina’s government is heading into an upcoming general election having held onto power since 2009, amid allegations that she has gone after her critics as well as cracked down on free speech. 

The open letter said that lawsuits filed against Yunus, 83, had no merit or legal basis, and that he was facing a miscarriage of justice.

The letter and statement in support of Yunus came out as a trial against him resumes in Dhaka later this week. He is being sued by the government for alleged embezzlement of more than U.S. $2 million from the employees’ welfare fund of Grameen Telecom, a company he founded and chairs. 

The statement noted that 34 civil society leaders in Bangladesh had issued a similar statement on Sunday to call on the government to stop its harassment of him.

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

It called on the government to suspend judicial proceedings against Yunus and allow a panel of impartial judges from within the nation along with internationally recognized legal experts to review the charges.

“We are confident that any thorough review of the anti-corruption and labor law cases against him will result in his acquittal,” it said.

“As you know, Professor Yunus’ work, which has been inspirational to all of us, focuses on how social business can be a force for international progress resulting in zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero-net carbon emissions. He is a leading example of how Bangladesh and Bangladeshis have contributed to global progress in recent decades.”

The letter included a call for a fair election – Bangladeshis are to go to the polls at the end of the year or in January 2024 to elect a new government.

“We hope that you ensure the resolution of these legal issues in an expedient, impartial, and just manner while also ensuring a free, fair, and participatory national election in the coming months, and respect for all human rights. We will join with millions of concerned citizens around the world in closely tracking how these matters are resolved in the days ahead,” it said.

Obama, who as a sitting president, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, was with Yunus at the White House that year when he awarded the Bangladeshi economist the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Other signers include former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U2 lead singer and activist Bono, musician Peter Gabriel, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, actress Sharon Stone and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Hasina addressed the letter, calling on its signatories to send international experts and lawyers to scrutinize the accusations against Yunus.

“For those who have signed the statement, I suggest they send specialists and lawyers to examine the evidence and documents related to the charges against the accused,” the prime minister said. “I don’t know how issuing statements would lead to the dropping of charges. They should visit and see if there are any anomalies or inconsistencies with the process.”

Responding to the criticism of her government’s actions against Yunus, Hasina added: “Had he been utterly convinced of his innocence, he wouldn’t have begged for international endorsements.”

Bangladeshi prosecutors and judges should disregard the letter from global leaders and carry on with the judicial process, she said.

U.S. President Barack Obama presents the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi leader in global anti-poverty efforts who pioneered the use of micro-loans to provide credit to poor individuals, during ceremonies at the White House in Washington, Aug. 12, 2009. [J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo]

Despite their efforts, an additional 18 civil cases were filed against Yunus on Monday at a labor court in Dhaka.

Abdullah Al Mamun, Yunus’s lawyer and legal adviser to the Grameen Group, said 18 former employees filed separate lawsuits, adding that the court had issued a summons for his client to reply by Oct. 16.

“These cases have no legal basis and no merit – they have been filed to harass Dr. Muhammad Yunus. We will face these cases through legal means,” Mamun told BenarNews.

He said the new litigants allege they did not share 5% of Grameen’s profits as stipulated by a 2006 Bangladesh labor law.

In a subsequent conversation with BenarNews, Yunus’ attorney welcomed the prime minister’s proposals on Tuesday.

“Once international experts arrive, it will be evident that the allegations against Dr. Muhammad Yunus don’t have any legal standing,” he said.

That same year, Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work promoting economic development and micro-credit schemes to help lift people from poverty.

The lawyer said Yunus had set up 50 entities promoting non-profit social business to eradicate poverty and to establish employment opportunities in the communities.

“Thus far, 200 cases have been filed against these entities set up by Yunus,” Mamun said.

In September 2021, Bangladesh’s Department of Factories and Establishments filed a case against Yunus alleging Grameen violated the nation’s labor laws.

Last week, prosecution witness Tariqul Islam, a department inspector, testified against Yunus as part of this case.

The department found that Grameen Telecom did not give permanent appointments to 101 employees and refrained from sharing profits with employees in violation of the labor law, Islam testified. Defense lawyers are expected to cross-examine the witness when the trial resumes on Thursday.

On Monday, Badiul Alam Majumder, chief of Sujon, a group advocating for good governance, spoke out in support of Yunus.

“What has been going on against Dr. Muhammad Yunus is nothing but harassment. Harassing a respected person like Dr. Yunus in such a manner is not befitting,” he told BenarNews.

This report has been updated to add comments by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.


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