Is Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus a prisoner in waiting?

Is Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus a prisoner in waiting? Muhammad Yunus. Photo: Yunus Centre

Mushfiqul Fazal Ansarey

While inaugurating her mega-development project – the Padma Bridge – financed and constructed by China, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina wanted to dunk two figures in the river’s murky water.

The first was Begum Khaleda Zia, the country’s first female prime minister and her political rival. The second was Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, whom Hasina blamed for the World Bank’s backtracking from the bridge project over corruption charges.

Zia has been facing ‘the dunking’, languishing in jail or under house arrest, for more than six years. The US State Department termed Zia’s jail terms a “political ploy to remove her from the electoral process”.

Now, it is Yunus’s turn to face “the dunking” as all the state apparatus are being applied to harass and intimidate him. The fear is legitimate, as similar strategies were employed before Zia was put in jail.

“I don’t want to leave Bangladesh,” Yunus urgently declared in a recent interview with Zeit Online. “They might put me in jail,” he added, revealing the seriousness of the threat he faces at home.

In the interview, the 83-year-old economist, known for his work in microcredit and social entrepreneurship, recounted a distressing incident in which some people, claiming to be connected to the bank he founded, took over his social businesses.

He underlined that the harassment has been getting worse each day, painting a tough picture for someone whose life’s work is under attack.

On February 13, during a press conference, Yunus alleged that the Hasina government had manoeuvred a forceful takeover of eight of his enterprises housed in the Grameen Telecom Building in Dhaka. He said those offices were kept locked by the authorities and calls to the police for assistance have gone unanswered.

What is Yunus’s crime?

A court in Bangladesh has sentenced Yunus to six months in jail for violating the country’s labour laws. The court found that he has failed ‘to create a welfare fund for workers of Grameen Telecom”, a venture to which he was affiliated.

Throwing light on whether the verdict was justified, Professor Rehman Sobhan, a close friend of Indian Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, says, “Over the years, the weaponisation of the legal system has become an element in the wider assault on our institutions of democracy and governance.”

Global reactions

On February 15, the UN Secretary General’s spokesperson Stephane Dujarric was asked about the harsh measures against Yunus and whether the UN Secretary General was aware of the situation.

He said, “We are very much aware. I’d have to reiterate that Dr Yunus has been a very much valued partner of the United Nations through the years.”

“He’s been an advocate for us both in official and unofficial capacity and supporting a number of the UN initiatives. We are very concerned about the reports that we have seen coming out of Bangladesh on issues related to him,” Dujarric added.

The US State Department expressed similar concerns while sounding a note of caution about wider abuses.

Principal spokesperson of the state department Mathew Miller said, “We share the concerns voiced by other international observers that these cases may represent a misuse of Bangladesh’s labour laws to harass and intimidate Dr. Yunus”.

He added: “We worry the perceived misuse of labour and anti-corruption laws could raise questions about the rule of law and dissuade future foreign direct investment, and we encourage the Bangladeshi Government to ensure a fair and transparent legal process for Dr. Yunus as the appeals process continues.”

In a series of open letters, expressing international concern and appeals, global leaders consistently addressed the unjust targeting of Yunus. For instance, 242 global leaders, including 125 Nobel Laureates, expressed deep concern in a letter written in late January over his continuous judicial harassment and potential jailing.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of 12 US senators wrote to Hasina asking her to put an end to the persistent harassment. The senators expressed concern over more than 150 unsubstantiated cases brought against Yunus in the past decade, highlighting irregularities in the legal proceedings and the use of criminal charges, which they argue are politically motivated.

Why Yunus?

For the last couple of years, Hasina has been coming heavy-handedly after Yunus. She frequently frames him as ‘bloodsucker’, ‘usurer’ and so on.

Some critics say Hasina expresses her wrath regarding Yunus because the world recognises him way more than her or her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Some even wonder if the Nobel Prize is the root cause for her persecution of Yunus, as she didn’t receive the honour while her party loyalists argue that she was more worthy than Yunus.

If global recognition is a concern for Hasina, she should be proud that the Reporters Without Borders crowned her as ‘Predator of Press Freedom’.

On January 8, right after her victory in the sham elections, an Indian journalist asked the Awami League leader if she would be pardoning Yunus as a good faith gesture after winning the election.

Hasina replied, “This is a matter of the labour court. The workers of his own organisation are deprived. I’ve nothing to do here. This question of pardoning him should not come to me. Rather, he should seek an apology from his workers.”

To many observers, Yunus has not been a vocal critic of Sheikh Hasina’s authoritarian regime, her gruesome human rights records or muzzling political dissents.

Notably, he faced a question from DW Bangla about why he hasn’t been outspoken about the absence of democracy in Bangladesh. In his defence, Yunus said he wanted to avoid ‘unwarranted consequences’ from the government.

However, after the controversial jail term against him, Yunus made an attempt to speak for human rights and democracy.

Recently, Yunus’ daughter Monica told Christiane Amanpour that her father once worked in collaboration with Hasina. Would there be a possibility of Hasina and Yunus rejuvenating their collaborative working in near future, the DW journalist asked Yunus.

The Nobel Laureate didn’t outright deny the possibility.

“Am I the obstacle (of such a possibility)? No one is asking me while she hasn’t stopped ranting against me, calling me ‘blood sucker’, ‘robber’,” he said.

If that collaboration happens, will Yunus have to compromise his call for ‘standing for human rights and democracy’? What options does he have other than shaking hands with Hasina if he wants to dodge jail-terms?

To avoid imprisonment, perhaps Yunus has few options other than signing ‘Lucifer’s contract’.-The Wire