Dhaka, Bangladesh – Three Nobel Peace Prize winners visited Bangladesh five years ago and met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other top government officials and civil society activists.
The trio – Iran’s Shirin Ebadi, Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman and Northern Ireland’s Mairead Maguire – also visited southern Bangladesh to meet the Rohingya, a persecuted and displaced minority group from Myanmar sheltered in the world’s largest refugee camp.
But another thing the three Nobel laureates did was conspicuously absent from local media reports: their meeting with Mohammad Yunus, Bangladesh’s lone Nobel Peace Prize winner. He won the prize in 2006 for pioneering microfinance, which, according to the Swedish academy, has lifted millions of people out of poverty worldwide.
A spokesperson for the Yunus Centre, a think tank founded by Yunus, said the Nobel laureates met him as soon as they arrived and had dinner with him. A photo of that dinner was also shared with Al Jazeera with a caution to not make it public.
“We didn’t want to create any uncomfortable situation for them [the three Nobel laureates]. You know how the government is treating Dr Yunus. News of their meeting would not have been well-received,” he said.
The soured relationship between Bangladesh’s current government and its most prominent private citizen is a well-known fact.
Yunus, 83, is a globally celebrated expert on poverty. But in his homeland, he is facing multiple cases for alleged corruption and violation of labour laws.
Only last month, some former workers of Grameen Telecom, a company founded by Yunus, accused him of not sharing the firm’s 5 percent profit with the Workers Profit Participation Fund.
Bangladesh’s anticorruption commission also charged him with embezzling funds from the same company in another case.
In July, the country’s Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision declaring Yunus guilty of tax evasion. He was ordered to pay more than $1m in taxes within 90 days or land in jail for months.
‘Continuous judicial harassment’
Late last month, more than 170 global figures, including nearly 100 Nobel laureates, wrote an open letter, urging Hasina’s government to stop the “continuous judicial harassment” of Yunus.
“We are confident that any thorough review of the anti-corruption and labour law cases against him will result in his acquittal,” said the letter, with signatories such as former US President Barack Obama, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U2 lead singer Bono, among others.
“We sincerely wish that he [will] be able to continue his path-breaking work free of persecution or harassment,” it said.
An angry Hasina responded by saying Yunus “begged” for an international statement and welcomed the global figures to analyse the cases against him.
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said the figures may have issued the letter “due to a lack of information” about Yunus. “Ignorance prevails here,” he said.
Meanwhile, the United Nations human rights office also issued a statement on September 5, saying it is concerned over Yunus facing “harassment and intimidation for almost a decade”.
“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,” it said.
Last week, Bangladesh’s Deputy Attorney General Imran Ahmed Bhuiyan also said he agreed with what the global leaders and bodies said about Yunus. As a result, the government lawyer was suspended.
Law Minister Anisul Haq told reporters about Bhuiyan’s suspension on Friday, accusing him of breaching discipline.
Making ‘an example’ of Yunus
Analysts say Hasina’s grudge against Yunus has a lot to do with what they call a “tactical blunder” the economist made some 15 years ago.
Riding on his popularity as Bangladesh’s first-ever Nobel laureate, Yunus in 2007 founded his own political party, the Nagorik Shakti (Citizens’ Power). He was soon touted as a potential leader of a caretaker government to oversee the general elections.
Though he soon abandoned the plan, Hasina and her Awami League party, according to experts, seem to have stuck with the idea that a banker with well-known friends in the West could be a potential candidate for the prime minister’s post.
“Yunus’s decision to form a new political party during a volatile political period with an extended military-backed caretaker government rubbed the Awami League party the wrong way,” Michael Kugelman, director of South Asian Institute of US-based think tank The Wilson Center, told Al Jazeera.
“Yunus and his supporters would say he was simply trying to establish a third way beyond corrupt, dynastic politics. But that’s not how Sheikh Hasina and other Awami League leaders saw it back then.”
Hasina has repeatedly called Yunus a “bloodsucker” for allegedly using force to recover loans given by his Grameen Bank to mainly poor people. After coming to power in 2008, her administration began a series of investigations against Yunus. He was also sacked from the position of managing director of Grameen Bank in 2011.
Two years later, Yunus was accused of receiving foreign money without government permission, including the Nobel Prize money and royalties for his books.
Ali Riaz, a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University in the US, told Al Jazeera the “humiliation and vilification” of Yunus by the Awami League government is not new.
“It has been going on since 2011 but now it has taken a leap to make an example out of him. It is to send a message that if a person of his stature can be persecuted, others should be afraid of their fates,” he said.
Riaz said Yunus is disliked by the governing party because of a “misperception which led to unfounded allegations” that he was behind the cancellation of a World Bank loan for the construction of Bangladesh’s largest bridge.
In 2012, the bank pulled out from the Padma Bridge project citing corruption concerns. The government finally completed the project last year with its own money.
But Shah Ali Farhad, former special assistant to Hasina, told Al Jazeera Yunus had “this habit of seeking help from his influential friends whenever he found things not going his way”.
“His urging of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 to intercede on his behalf during the Grameen Bank leadership tussle is widely believed to have led the World Bank pulling away from funding the Padma Bridge project,” he said.
‘Persecution in the name of trial’
Yunus’s lawyer Abdullah Al Mamun told Al Jazeera the corruption and labour law cases against Yunus had “no legal merit”.
“Grameen Telecom is a not-for-profit company and as per the Company Act of Bangladesh, the company is not liable to share profit among the employees,” he said. “The case has most likely been filed to taint the reputation of my client.”
Using the judiciary against political opponents is common among the successive governments in Bangladesh, Asif Nazrul, professor of law at Dhaka University, told Al Jazeera. “And the longer someone stays in power, the greater the tendency to control the judiciary.”
In a report titled Quietly Crushing a Democracy this month, The New York Times showed how the judiciary is used by the Bangladeshi government to persecute opponents and dissenters.
Terming the cases against Yunus a definite “judicial harassment”, Nazrul said, Yunus is simply facing “persecution in the name of trial”.
Some analysts believe the legal cases against Yunus are linked to recent steps taken by the US administration ahead of national elections, due in less than six months.
The last two elections saw allegations of widespread vote-rigging and a boycott by the opposition, which fears a repeat in the forthcoming polls.
In May, the US announced it would deny its visa to Bangladeshi officials found undermining the democratic process in the country. In December 2021, Washington imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) paramilitary unit and some of its officials for their alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
Zahed Ur Rahman, a Dhaka-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera that since Yunus has a good relationship with the political elites in the US, the Awami League government thinks he was behind the recent US moves.
“We shouldn’t forget that Hasina and her party repeatedly accused Yunus of the cancellation of the World Bank loan for the Padma Bridge,” he said.
Journalist Shayan S Khan said it is normal in Bangladesh for the governing parties “to get paranoid” in the year preceding an election.
“Besides, the rumour mills in the country keep churning out stories of America wanting to install a caretaker government headed by Yunus in Dhaka. With the issue of election still unresolved and the considerable uncertainty that it breeds, the government probably fails to see the baseless claim for what it is, given its own state of paranoia,” Khan told Al Jazeera.