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Jail Sentence for Bangladesh Nobel Laureate Triggers Outrage


Bangladeshi Nobel peace laureate Muhammad Yunus (in white vest) gestures in front of a court house after being sentenced to six months in prison in a labor law violation case, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 1, 2024.
Bangladeshi Nobel peace laureate Muhammad Yunus (in white vest) gestures in front of a court house after being sentenced to six months in prison in a labor law violation case, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 1, 2024.

Rights activists and supporters of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus are expressing shock and anger over a six-month prison sentence handed to the economist on charges of violating labor laws.

Supporters of Yunus said that the case in which he was convicted Monday is politically motivated, while activists said that the Sheikh Hasina-led government began hounding him largely because the prime minister viewed him as a potential political threat.

"For his work among the poor, Professor Muhammad Yunus got a Nobel Prize, brought honor to Bangladesh and was hailed as a global social business hero,” said Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman of the Capital Punishment Justice Project, which has been documenting rights violations in Bangladesh for more than 15 years.

“Now using the judiciary, the government is harassing and humiliating him on frivolous grounds. The conviction is indeed a travesty of justice,” he told VOA.

Yunus is credited with lifting millions of people out of poverty through his pioneering use of microloans through Grameen Bank, which he founded in 1983 for those unable to procure loans from conventional banks. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his grassroots development work in Bangladesh.

At least 199 cases have been filed against Yunus since Hasina first became prime minister in 2009, mostly for allegedly violating labor laws and embezzling funds from some of the more than 50 social business firms that he had set up in the country.

This past Monday, Sheikh Merina Sultana, head of a labor court in Dhaka, pronounced Yunus and three Grameen Telecom colleagues guilty of labor law violations and sentenced each to six months in prison. All have been granted bail pending appeals.

The judge said in her verdict that the company violated labor laws by failing to make 67 temporary employees permanent, not creating welfare funds for employees and failing to distribute 5% of the company’s dividends to them.

In an interview with VOA’s Bangla service, government lawyer Khurshid Alam Khan, representing the Directorate of Factories and Institutions, maintained that the sentence was appropriate and that Yunus had been treated fairly, noting that Yunus remains free pending an appeal.

"The judge read out the main parts of the 84-page verdict where the violations of labor law were proved,” he said. “So, as the labor law violation is proved, he was sentenced by the court. ... He asked for bail and [was] immediately granted bail.”

Information and Broadcasting Minister Muhammad Hasan Mahmud also defended the ruling when speaking to reporters on Monday.

“And with due respect to Dr. Muhammad Yunus, I want to say that Dr. Yunus did not pay the dues of the workers for many years. Later, when the workers went to court, his company asked two labor leaders to manage this by bribing them,” he charged.

‘We are innocent’

Yunus said the charges were baseless.

“I founded the social business firms which were always aimed at specifically benefiting common people. I have not profited from any of the social business firms I set up in Bangladesh,” Yunus told local reporters in the court on Monday.

“All four of us in this case are innocent. Yet we have been pronounced guilty. You may call it justice if you want.”

Yunus’ lawyer, Abdullah Al-Mamun, told VOA that the alleged crimes with which Yunus and his colleagues were charged are civil offenses under Bangladesh’s Labour Act but that the government filed them as a criminal case, “strangely.”

“This is an unprecedented judgment. Due legal process was not followed in the case. The case was fast-tracked in a way that we were not given enough time to present our arguments in court. We were denied a fair trial and have therefore been denied justice,” Mamun told VOA.

“All charges were false. We see the case as an attempt to damage the Nobel laureate’s global reputation. … We will appeal against the verdict.”

Shortly after he won the Nobel Prize, Yunus planned to launch a new political party pledging to uproot corruption in the country. A few months later, however, he abandoned the idea of partaking in politics.

Yunnus viewed as potential rival

Hasina had praised Yunus’ development-related achievement and Grameen Bank initially, but later she changed her tone after he emerged as a potential political rival.

While the global community hailed him as a development hero and his popularity soared in Bangladesh, Hasina accused him of “sucking blood” from poor people, and in 2011, her administration launched a series of investigations against him.

Over the past years, Yunus has faced scores of civil suits and criminal cases related to the social business companies he founded.

In August, more than 170 global figures, including former U.S. President Barack Obama, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and over 100 Nobel laureates, published a joint letter voicing concerns over the “continuous judicial harassment” of Yunus.

In a statement on Tuesday, Ban said, "A leader like Muhammad Yunus should be celebrated and free to contribute to improving the lives of people and the planet. The last place he should be is in prison. I call for an immediate reversal of this unjust verdict."

In September, Amnesty International said in a statement that the criminal proceeding against Yunus marked “a blatant abuse of labour laws and the justice system and a form of political retaliation for his work and dissent.”

Dhaka University professor and political commentator Asif Nazrul said that the highest tier of the ruling party, “which has an iron grip on the judiciary, relentlessly assassinated the character” of Yunus.

“Bangladesh does not have the best reputation for honoring labor rights and safety. Yet, compared to other labor law cases, the trial of Professor Yunus was conducted with unusual swiftness,” Nazrul told VOA.

“The ridiculously high number of cases filed against him during this government's current regime clearly indicates the malicious intent against him.”

Jon Danilowicz, a retired U.S. diplomat who has served in Bangladesh, said Hasina has long “pursued a political and personal vendetta” against Yunus.

“This directed conviction is intended to send a message to any who would dare to stand up to her,” Danilowicz told VOA.

“She also hopes to demonstrate to her supporters that Western threats to hold her regime accountable won’t be followed up by action.”