Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Laureate, convicted in a controversial Bangladesh labour law case

Global figures, including former U.S. President Barack Obama and ex-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, voiced their concern in August by publishing a joint letter denouncing the “continuous judicial harassment” of Yunus.

In a shocking turn of events, Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, renowned for his groundbreaking work in microfinance, has been convicted of violating Bangladesh’s labour laws. The case, labelled by Yunus’s supporters as politically motivated, adds another layer to the longstanding feud between the 83-year-old economist and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Yunus, credited with lifting millions out of poverty through his innovative microfinance bank, has been accused by Hasina of “sucking blood” from the poor. The hostility between the two escalated further as Yunus and three colleagues from Grameen Telecom, a company he co-founded, were found guilty of violating labour laws by failing to establish a workers’ welfare fund. The labour court in Dhaka handed down a sentence of “six months’ simple imprisonment,” according to lead prosecutor Khurshid Alam Khan, who also mentioned that all four were promptly granted bail pending appeals.

Maintaining his innocence, Yunus addressed reporters after the hearing, expressing that he had been punished for a crime he asserted he hadn’t committed. He added a cryptic remark, suggesting that observers were welcome to interpret the verdict as they deemed fit, stating that they could characterize it as justice if they wished.

This conviction is just one facet of Yunus’s legal battles, with over 100 other charges related to labour law violations and alleged graft hanging over him. During a previous hearing, Yunus emphasized that his more than 50 social business firms in Bangladesh were not for personal gain but aimed at societal improvement.

Khaja Tanvir, one of Yunus’s lawyers, denounced the case as “meritless, false, and ill-motivated,” claiming its sole purpose was to “harass and humiliate him in front of the world.” The gravity of the situation was echoed by Irene Khan, a former Amnesty chief and current UN special rapporteur, who was present at the verdict. She described the conviction as “a travesty of justice,” asserting that a Nobel laureate and social activist was being persecuted on frivolous grounds.

In August, prominent figures globally, including former U.S. President Barack Obama and former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, expressed their apprehension. They collectively conveyed their disapproval of the ongoing legal challenges faced by Yunus, denouncing what they described as the persistent legal pressures he has been experiencing. More than 100 fellow Nobel laureates joined them, expressing fears for “his safety and freedom.”

Critics have accused Bangladeshi courts of being influenced by Hasina’s government, which is widely expected to secure another term in the upcoming elections, despite being boycotted by the opposition. The government’s increasing crackdown on political dissent has heightened tensions, with Yunus’s popularity making him a perceived rival.

Amnesty International, which was present during Yunus’s trial in September, levelled accusations against the government, alleging the “weaponization of labour laws.” The organization called for an immediate cessation of what they characterized as his “harassment,” asserting that the criminal proceedings were a perceived form of political retaliation against Yunus for his work and dissent.

As Yunus and his legal team prepare to appeal the conviction, the global audience closely observes, expressing concern about the potential erosion of justice and political freedoms in Bangladesh.