The Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, is credited with lifting millions out of poverty in the country of Bangladesh. Grameen became famous for pioneering the concept of microcredit, granting loans of under $100 to Bangladesh’s rural poor. That helped spark a worldwide movement which helped win Yunus the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. But a Bangladeshi court now wants to add something else to Yunus’s résumé: A six-month prison sentence.
On Monday, a judge in Dhaka convicted Yunus and three executives of Grameen Telecom of failing to create a welfare fund for employees, among other violations of labor law. The judge sentenced Yunus to six months in prison.
The Nobel laureate called the verdict “contrary to all legal precedent and logic” in a statement on Monday, and called upon Bangladeshis to speak in “one voice against injustice.”
Who is Muhammad Yunus?
Yunus founded Grameen Bank in October 1983, and the bank has since lent over $37.5 billion to Bangladesh’s poor at a recovery rate of 97%. The bank is credited for boosting the South Asian country’s growth through small cash loans, mostly to rural women, for investing in farming tools or other business equipment. The bank lists 12 indicators on its website to determine when one of its customers has moved out of poverty.
Grameen’s success helped pioneer the microcredit model of development. Proponents argued that small microloans to those without steady employment or good collateral could help encourage entrepreneurship among poorer populations, as customers used the funds to start micro- and small-sized enterprises. Microfinance has since come under fire for not being able to deliver on its lofty goals, yet some analysts argue that offering access to financial services still makes a difference to the poor.
In addition to winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, Yunus has received many other accolades including Bangladesh’s Independence Day Award, the country’s highest award.
Yet Yunus is less popular among Bangladesh’s current government, including prime minister Sheikh Hasina. She has accused Yunus of “sucking blood from the poor,” and alleged that the banker helped block international funding for infrastructure projects.
The Grameen founder was once a potential political rival to Hasina, briefly entertaining the idea of starting his own political party soon after winning his Nobel Prize.
Yunus now faces over 100 charges, including other labor law violations and alleged graft. The legal campaign against Yunus has drawn the attention of global figures like former U.S. president Barack Obama and former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, who both signed onto a letter in August denouncing the “continuous judicial harassment” of Yunus.
Bangladesh will hold its parliamentary elections on Sunday, with the Awami League, led by Hasina, aiming for its fourth consecutive victory. Hasina is likely to win the election, as Bangladesh’s main opposition parties are boycotting the polls. Activists say they do not believe a free and fair election can be held under a Hasina government. Several opposition leaders are also in jail.
Despite promising to hold free and fair elections, “state authorities are simultaneously filling prisons with the ruling Awami League’s political opponents,” wrote Julia Beckner, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, in November. The NGO claims authorities have arrested almost 10,000 opposition activists since a political rally from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party in late October.