On January 1 2024, the Third Labour Court of Bangladesh sentenced Professor Dr Muhammad Yunus and three others to six months imprisonment for labour law violation. Immediately after the pronouncement of the verdict, they filed a bail petition, and the same court granted them bail for one month. On January 24 2024, twelve US Senators wrote a letter to the honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. They wrote, ‘We write urging you to end the persistent harassment of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Professor Dr Muhammad Yunus and the pattern of abusing laws and justice to target government critics.’ On March 7 2023, forty world leaders jointly published an open letter in the Washington Post as a full-page advertisement that cost 73,033 US dollars.
In that letter of March 2023, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was requested to ‘take positive steps to support and recogniserecognise the great contributions of one of your most notable citizens, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus’. As they failed to divert the due process of law at that time, their friends are now vehemently critical of the outcome of the judicial process and indirectly accuse the government of abusing the law and justice system. In a letter signed by US Senators Richard J. Durbin and Todd Young, they also maliciously claimed, ‘For more than a decade, Professor Yunus has faced more than 150 unsubstantiated cases brought against him in Bangladesh.’ They also referred to the statement and report of UN Human Rights Chief Volker Turk and Amnesty International.
Professor Dr Muhammad Yunus was tried for violating some provisions of the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006, i.e. failure to make permanent 67 employees who were employed contractually, failure to form the employee’s participation and welfare funds, and failure to contribute five per cent of the company’s dividends to this fund. Professor Dr. Muhammad Yunus failed to disprove any of the allegations brought against him. The lawyers of Professor Dr Muhammad Yunus tried to convince the court that the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 does not apply to Grameen Telecom because they have their own rules of employment. However, section 3 of the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 states that an organisation’s employment rules must provide better labour rights. However, the lawyers of Professor Dr Muhammad Yunus failed to prove that the employment provisions of Grameen Telecom are better than those of the Bangladesh Labour Court 2006. We would have loved to know if the allegations against him were false and fabricated. Unfortunately, the court found the contrary.
After having failed to win the case legally, the learned lawyer of Professor Dr Muhammad Yunus, Abdullah-Al-Mamun, falsely alleged that the documents of the case were not provided even after multiple requests and, therefore, they cannot file an appeal to the Labour Appellate Tribunal against the judgment of the Third Labour Court. However, the fact of the matter is that the only document they need to file an appeal is a certified copy of the verdict that has been provided. He also distributed the printed copies of the letter written by the 12 US Senators on the court premises.
Whether Professor Dr Muhammad Yunus is above the law is a matter of contention. In a High Court ruling against the Attorney-General (1977), Lord Denning wrote, “To every subject of this land, however powerful, I would use Thomas Fuller’s words over three hundred years ago, ‘Be ye never so high, the law is above you.” Bangladesh still needs to perfect the rule of law. That does not spare Professor Muhammad Yunus. Every big fish should be caught and brought before the court. The process has started. Bangladesh tried war criminals and killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his innocent family members. Bangladesh is attempting to come out of the culture of indemnity and impunity. Hopefully, it will establish a sense of justice in the society where no one will demand unfair treatment.
The letter alluded to Professor Yunus obtaining the Congressional Gold Medal for the ‘fight against poverty’. It also mentioned Professor Yunus’s pioneering work on microfinance. However, Professor Muhammad Yunus’s activities do not seem to be beyond criticism. Caught in Micro Debt, a Norwegian documentary film, accused the Grameen Bank of tax evasion. If proven to be accurate, the Bangladesh Government lost a huge amount of revenue money, which could have been used for the social welfare of the people of Bangladesh, such as healthcare, education, and poverty reduction. Additionally, Nobel prize-winning economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, in their masterpiece Poor Economics (2011), argue that microfinance appears to be nominally better than any other measures of poverty alleviation. They are also critical of the hype created around the microcredit.
Many politicians were awarded Nobel Peace Prizes, such as Henry Kissinger, who ravaged East Asia; Barack Obama, who destroyed Libya; and Abiy Ahmed, who later waged a civil war. Both of them repaid the Nobel Peace Prize committee by causing deaths and devastation. So, the Congressional Gold Medal or Nobel Prize does not guarantee that an awardee might not commit a crime. Rather, it might prove that the prizes were awarded to the wrong persons and thereby discredit the prizes.
After reminding the PM of the Bangladesh-US longstanding relationship, the US Senators opined that ‘Ending the harassment of Professor Yunus, and others exercising their freedom of speech to criticise the Government, will help continue this important relationship.’ Of course, we seek friendship with the United States. But we should not sacrifice the sense of national dignity that we earned through a bloody war of liberation in 1971. Moreover, the politicians of the USA should remember that Bangladesh supplies readymade garments products at the cheapest price possible. Where will they find such a price in the world? Nowhere! So they are doing business with us- not because they are benevolent and doing charity, but because their companies could make huge profits.
In the abovementioned letter, the US Senators were critical not only of the judicial verdict against Professor Yunus but also of ‘an increasingly restrictive environment’. This proves they intended not to speak for Professor Yunus but to speak against and malign the Bangladesh government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. While the diplomatic relationship with the USA is improving, such a humiliating letter might damage it. I am pretty sure that the US politicians are mature enough not to jeopardise the Bangladesh-US relationship due to one man’s conviction after following due process of law.
In brief, as the US has recently been critical of the labour workers’ rights, they should help Bangladesh improve the situation of labour rights in Bangladesh, not obstruct the rule of labour law.