Bangladesh anti-corruption agency continues desperate bid to ensnare Yunus

With no evidence to support its initial claims against Grameen Telecom, ACC is now investigating dozens of other not-for-profit entities linked to the Grameen Bank founder.

Bangladesh anti-corruption agency continues desperate bid to ensnare Yunus
Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, Nobel Prize Winner, and chairperson of Grameen Telecom. Picture: Alamy

As is common in authoritarian countries around the world, the current Bangladesh government uses and abuses state powers to destroy or hinder its political adversaries, opponents and anyone else who are perceived as threats.

In recent years, the most serious abuses of power in Bangladesh involved the use of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, though the government continues to deny these happening in the face of extensive evidence. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina most recently claimed that disappeared people were found in opposition party processions! As to extrajudicial killings, the new commander of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) said that there was no need to reform the agency, even though its involvement in extrajudicial killings has been copiously documented, recently resulting in RAB getting sanctioned by the US government.

However, a technique used far more extensively by the Bangladesh government against its opponents/critics/perceived threats, is politicised investigations based on bogus allegations - which can often result in groundless criminal cases or other administrative sanction. The government is able to do this through its control over all the state institutions, but especially over the country’s law enforcement agencies and the lower courts. Such actions have a dire impact on the individuals concerned, which the government authorities are fully aware of — and indeed is the reason why they do it. It begins as harassment and intimidation but often leads, if the government so desires, to arrest and detention.

The biggest victim of this particular abusive technique has been the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), with thousands of its workers subjected over the last 13 years to arrest and detention. But there are many others with no connection to the Awami League government’s political opposition — who get on the wrong side of the ruling party for one reason or another — that are also subjected to this abuse of power, many under the Digital Security Act.

The police is the principal body involved in these politicised investigations, but the government also uses other investigative bodies, including the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).  And right now this agency is head deep in what must be one of its most politicised and abusive inquiries that it has so far decided to undertake. And it does not appear that the ACC will take its head out of the quagmire any time soon.

The inquiries started at the beginning of August 2022 when the ACC sent a letter to Muhammad Yunus, the chair of the not-for-profit company, Grameen Telecom, along with its three other directors, claiming that the company was involved in over $310 million of money laundering and the misappropriation of over $7 million. Yunus’s not-for-profit company Grameen Telecom owns a third of the shares of Bangladesh's leading mobile phone company Grameenphone (majority owned by the Norwegian company, Telenor) and therefore receives a third of the company’s extensive annual dividends.

As Netra News has previously shown, the allegations of corruption have no merit. The ACC confused money which the not-for-profit company had given, loaned or invested in a wide variety of social projects including hospitals and nursing schools as “money laundering”. In fact, the legal disbursement of money to social projects makes Grameen Telecom the country’s largest philanthropist, not a money launderer.

In addition, none of the other alleged $7 million was misappropriated. Instead, it formed part of a legal settlement with the company’s trade union concerning the company’s obligation to pay workers under the Bangladesh Labour Act’s Workers Welfare Participation Scheme — and the money was all clearly accounted for.

If one was to give the ACC a benefit of the doubt - and accept that they did need to ask these initial questions to Grameen Telecom - then one would also expect that they would quickly drop their inquiries once they understood that the initial allegations were bogus. But, the way the agency has responded points to this not being an honest investigative process, but seemingly a desperate attempt by the government to besmirch Yunus’s clean character, harass him and even find some reason to prosecute him.

Since its first letter to Grameen Telecom directors, the ACC has now decided to use its broad investigative powers to go on what lawyers generally describe as a “fishing expedition” asking for details of practically every transaction, every contract, and every land deal of any company or organisation Yunus has had any connection with, despite there being no obvious connection with the initial allegations against Grameen Telecom. It seems that the agency is now desperately hoping that somewhere in all this paperwork they can find some kind of irregularity to hang on the Nobel Peace Prize winner.

So, on August 30th, a month after the first request for documents, the ACC wrote two further letters to Grameen Telecom. In one, the ACC asked for detailed financial information on 27 other companies —  including at least two based in Italy,  Grameen Italia Spa and Grameen Italia Foundation — which have no connection with Grameen Telecom at all.

In the second letter, the ACC asked for information about the construction of the Social Medical College and Health Technology Institute and a company, Dhaka Logistic, with which, according to Grameen Telecom, it only had a passing relationship paying it $5000 to draft a proposal that was not accepted. These are random ACC requests with no apparent connection with the initial allegations.

After these two letters, the fishing expedition continued. The ACC wrote again two weeks later on September 14th, asking information about all the land purchases and sales by Grameen Telecom, specifically asking about “48.31 Bigha land brought at Sarabo Mouza industrial part”; details of all the shares owned by the company; details of the construction of the Samajik Health Science Hospital; details of space rented in a building, Telecom Bhaban, owned by the company and details of where Yunus rented space in the building.

And it goes on. The ACC wrote again on September 29th asking for 15 further categories of information. One of these requests was in relation to 43 different institutions, asking in relation to each of that they provide the following:

“Salary statements of all staff including managing directors, where salary money comes   from — relevant bank statements; activities of the organisations; sources of their funds; statement of FDR money if any; where and how the interest money is spent — audit report with money trail. If the company has purchased any land or has any other investment — the information is also to be furnished …”

What is the legitimate purpose of such a request?

Again, at least three of these organisations have no relationship with Grameen Telecom: Grameen America, and Grameen Foundation USA (which are both based in the United States) and the Yunus Centre. The Yunus Centre is funded from a Trust which comprises money from Yunus’s various awards or prizes, speaking arrangements and book sales.

Given that, since 2011, Yunus has been subject to years of bank and taxation inquiries, without finding any illegality, it is safe to conclude that the ACC will find no money laundering, no embezzlement, and no corruption. Whether this will stop the ACC from prosecuting Yunus is unclear — it depends on what their political masters want them to do.

So what is this all about? As set out elsewhere, this all seems to do with how Sheikh Hasina, and other key Awami League influencers, perceiving Yunus (who notably has just returned from Germany after receiving the prestigious Karl Kuebel Prize for his “exemplary projects for children and families”) as a potential political threat.

But the focus on Yunus also seems to be because the prime minister and others around her simply can’t believe that, unlike those politicians around them, he is not a crook and not syphoning money out of the country or into his own pocket.

And there is always a need for authoritarian leaderships to distract – and Yunus plays an effective role. It was, remember, not long ago that the prime minister blamed the Padma Bridge corruption fiasco on him.

But, there is no doubt that whatever is in the heads of the leadership of the country’s ruling party, most of Bangladesh and those outside the country will see this for what it is — a highly politicised, highly arbitrary, highly unjust investigation into one of the country’s greatest assets.●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News. He also runs the bangladeshpolitico blog