DHAKA, Bangladesh — More than 170 global leaders and Nobel laureates have urged Bangladesh's prime minister to suspend legal proceedings against Muhammad Yunus, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for pioneering the use of microcredit to help impoverished people.
In an open letter, the leaders, including former U.S. President Barack Obama, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and more than 100 Nobel laureates, said they were deeply concerned by recent threats to democracy and human rights in Bangladesh.
"One of the threats to human rights that concerns us in the present context is the case of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Prof. Muhammad Yunus. We are alarmed that he has recently been targeted by what we believe to be continuous judicial harassment,” said the letter, dated Tuesday.
“We are confident that any thorough review of the anti-corruption and labor law cases against him will result in his acquittal,” it said.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina responded by saying she would welcome international experts and lawyers to come to Bangladesh to assess the legal proceedings and examine documents involving the charges against Yunus.
“If they send the experts and lawyers, many more things will get revealed, which remain untouched. Many such things will come out,” Hasina said.
In 1983, Yunus founded Grameen Bank, which gives small loans to entrepreneurs who would not normally qualify for bank loans. The bank’s success in lifting people out of poverty led to similar microfinancing efforts in many other countries.
Hasina's administration began a series of investigations of Yunus after coming to power in 2008. She became enraged when Yunus announced he would form a political party in 2007 when the country was run by a military-backed government and she was in prison, although he did not follow through on the plan.
Yunus has also criticized politicians in the country, saying they are only interested in money. Hasina called him a “bloodsucker" and accused him of using force and other means to recover loans from poor rural women as head of Grameen Bank.
Hasina's government began a review of the bank's activities in 2011, and Yunus was fired as managing director for allegedly violating government retirement regulations. He was put on trial in 2013 on charges of receiving money without government permission, including his Nobel Prize award and royalties from a book.
He later faced more charges involving other companies he created, including Grameen Telecom, which is part of the country’s largest mobile phone company, GrameenPhone, a subsidiary of Norwegian telecom giant Telenor.
Earlier this month, 18 former Grameen Telecom workers filed a case against Yunus accusing him of siphoning off their job benefits. Defense lawyers called the case harassment and vowed to fight the allegations.
Separately, Yunus went on trial on Aug. 22 on charges of violating labor laws. The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments brought the case against Yunus and three other people in 2021, alleging discrepancies during an inspection of Grameen Telecom, including a failure to regularize positions for 101 staff members and to establish a workers’ welfare fund.
Yunus and 13 others were also named in a case brought by the Anti-Corruption Commission accusing them of embezzling funds from Grameen Telecom.
In their letter, the global figures also urged that Bangladesh's upcoming elections, expected to be held by early January, be credible.
Hasina said the elections would be free and fair.
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has alleged that the elections will be rigged and threatened to boycott the voting if Hasina does not step down and hand over power to a caretaker government to oversee the balloting. Hasina has rejected the demand.