The United Nations rights body has expressed its concerns against the continued harassment and detention of human rights defenders in Bangladesh, including Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus and leaders of prominent rights organisation Odhikar.
On Tuesday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk called on authorities in the South Asian country to create a “safe and enabling environment” for activists and civil society leaders.
“We are very concerned by the continued intimidation and harassment of human rights advocates and civil society leaders through legal proceedings in Bangladesh, including Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.
“The legal harassment of civil society leaders, human rights defenders and other dissenting voices is a worrying sign for civic and democratic space in Bangladesh,” Shamsadani said.
Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan from Odhikar have been slapped with criminal cases for a fact-finding report about extrajudicial killings 10 years ago.
The Hasina government has been accused of targeting rights activists and political opponents, with security forces accused of carrying out hundreds of extrajudicial killings since Hasina came to power in 2008.
The US slapped sanctions on the elite paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), in December 2021 over its alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings.
Washington has also threatened to curb visas to Bangladeshis who would undermine elections slated to be held early next year. Hasina has accused the US of seeking regime change in Bangladesh over the latter’s criticism of human rights in the South Asian country.
In an open letter last month, global leaders, including former US President Barack Obama, former UN 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.
They urged Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina 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.
“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 August 29.
“We are confident that any thorough review of the anti-corruption and labor law cases against him will result in his acquittal,” it said.
Hasina defends her actions
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. The previous year, Yunus had announced to form a political party, although he did not follow through on the plan.
Yunus has also criticised 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.
Yunus 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. Defence lawyers called the case harassment and pledged to fight the allegations.