Bangladesh’s Labour Appellate Tribunal Should Overturn Conviction of Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus

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Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus, accompanied by his lawyers, is arriving at the Labour Court in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on January 1, 2024.

The conviction of Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus appears to be politically motivated, the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative concluded in a report released today.

Based on its review of the proceedings, there are significant grounds for finding that the case against Professor Yunus constitutes an abuse of process, the report said, and it urges the Labour Appellate Tribunal to overturn the conviction for alleged violations of the country’s labour law.

Yunus’s supporters say that the case is part of a relentless campaign by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s administration to discredit and undermine him. Over 150 cases have reportedly been brought against Yunus and his affiliated companies since Prime Minister Hasina came to power in 2009. A vocal critic of Yunus, she has described him as a “bloodsucker of the poor” and, on another occasion, suggested that he should be “plunged into the Padma River.

The concerns around the proceedings against Yunus are especially relevant as the growing government crackdown on its critics before the January 2024 general elections prompted the CIVICUS Monitor to give Bangladesh’s civic space its worst rating, with reports of sweeping arrests of opposition figures. Hundreds of global leaders and Nobel Laureates, including former US President Barack Obama and former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have signed two open letters in which they described the recent cases against Yunus as “continuous judicial harassment” and expressed their “profound concern.”

On January 1, 2024, less than seven months after charges were framed, Professor Yunus was convicted and sentenced to six months imprisonment and a fine, just a week before the disputed general elections returned Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to power. The case was based on alleged violations of Bangladesh’s Labour Law by Grameen Telecom, a company that Yunus founded in the 1990s to help the poor acquire cell phones and use them to earn a living.

Yunus, who serves as the company’s non-executive Chairperson of the Board, was convicted alongside three other Grameen Telecom Board members targeted for prosecution out of the eight members of the Board of Directors. All four defendants appealed their convictions on January 28, 2024, and the Labour Appellate Tribunal has called for the file on March 3. Pending the appeal, Yunus and his co-defendants are free on bail. Meanwhile, also on March 3 a different court will hold a hearing in another case against Yunus and members of the Grameen Telecom Board.

TrialWatch’s report finds that the proceedings against Yunus appear to have been improperly motivated based on a combination of factors – the fraught political climate in which the trial took place, the many other cases brought against Yunus, the statements made by Sheikh Hasina about Yunus, the expedited nature of the proceedings, the apparent selective targeting of Yunus amongst many other individuals at Grameen Telecom arguably subject to the same law, the authorities’ unusually aggressive and potentially unforeseeable interpretation of the Labour Law, and procedural irregularities.

TrialWatch calls on Bangladesh’s Labour Appellate Tribunal to overturn the conviction of Yunus and his co-defendants. TrialWatch will update its reporting after the end of the appeal proceedings.

TrialWatch monitors criminal trials globally against those who are most vulnerable—particularly journalists, democracy defenders, women and girls, LGBTQ+ persons, and minorities. TrialWatch’s work covers more than 40 countries and has led to persecuted individuals being freed or acquitted, and unfair laws reformed, in dozens of cases. TrialWatch is now building a Global Justice Index that will be the first to rank countries on their justice systems through real-world data.