Bangladesh Nobel peace laureate Muhammad Yunus fears for future as legal woes mount

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Bangladesh Nobel peace laureate Muhammad Yunus says it is a “million-dollar question” why the prime minister hates him, but says many believe she sees him as a political threat.

Yunus, 83, is credited with lifting millions out of poverty with his pioneering microfinance bank but has earned the enmity of long-time Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

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Last month, several of his firms were “forcefully” taken over, weeks after his conviction in a criminal case his supporters say was politically motivated.

“She calls me bloodsucker, calls me all the dirty things she can come up with,” he said.

“Why (does) she hate me? Some say it’s political... (that) she sees me as a political opponent,” he added, carefully avoiding directly accusing Hasina himself.

In January, Yunus and three colleagues from Grameen Telecom, one of the firms he founded, were sentenced to jail for six months after they were found guilty of violating labor laws.

All four deny the charges, and have been bailed pending appeal.

‘One-party state’

Yunus, who is facing more than 100 other charges over labor law violations and alleged graft, said the forcible takeover of his companies was related to a lack of democracy.

“Those cases are made on flimsy grounds,” he told AFP in an interview in the capital Dhaka last week.

“Since I don’t see any legal basis for that, probably it is politically motivated.”

Around 160 global figures, including former US president Barack Obama and ex-UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, published a joint letter last year denouncing the “continuous judicial harass-ment” of Yunus.

The signatories, including more than 100 of his fellow Nobel laureates, said they feared for “his safety and freedom”.

Hasina, 76, won her fourth consecutive general election in January, in a vote without genuine opposition parties, with a wide-spread boycott and a major crackdown against her political opponents.

Critics accuse Bangladeshi courts of rubber-stamping decisions made by Hasina’s government.

“It’s a one-party state because other parties don’t count,” he said. “We cannot express our views and go to the polling booth and exercise our voting right.”

In 2007, Yunus launched the “Nagorik Shakti” or “Citizen’s Power” movement to offer a third option in politics dominated for decades by Hasina and her rival Khaleda Zia.

But he said he backed out of politics after power struggles and squabbling rivalries rapidly left him disheartened.

“I am not a political guy, I am not going to do that,” he said. “So I immediately announced that I am not going to create a political party.”

‘New kind of world’

Yunus stressed the critical need for democratic rights.

“If you don’t have democracy, human rights will disappear,” he said. “Because nobody will object, because nobody is there to protect you, the rule of law has disappeared”.

He is cautious not to say the latest attempt to take over his com-panies was orchestrated by the government, but noted a stark lack of official response.

“If there was a rule of law, in the case of taking over the buildings and offices and so on, when I go to the police, police will immediately come because their responsibility is to protect me,” he said.

“Police didn’t do that. They just walked away, they didn’t see anything wrong. That’s not rule of law.”

He fears for the future of his “Three Zero” plan, which is aimed at slashing carbon emissions, ending unemployment, and cutting poverty.

“If I am put in jail, that will be a big blow to the whole movement around the whole world, where people are spending their day and night devoting themselves to create a new kind of world,” he said.

But Yunus is determined to remain in Bangladesh, rejecting offers to continue his work in self-imposed exile in Switzerland or the United States.

“I keep saying no, no, I have to be here, this is where it all began,” he said.

“It’s not only me -- it’s my whole group of people nationwide who are devoted to this, their lifetime they spent on this,” he added.

“If I shift, the whole thing will fall apart. It will split the whole thing into destruction.”

Read more: Bangladesh sentences Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus to six months in prison

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