International Crisis Group says criminal justice system is politicised and dysfunctional, a claim that Dhaka denies.
Dhaka, Bangladesh – Authorities have launched a new investigation into the financial affairs of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, his family, and the micro-credit agency Grameen Bank which he founded.
Last week, the Central Investigation Cell of the National Bureau of Revenue sent notices to banks in Bangladesh requiring them to provide information within seven days about any accounts, loans, or other financial instruments held in the past seven years either by Yunus, his wife, the Yunus family trust, or Grameen Bank.
The notices, seen by Al Jazeera, were sent out a week after a tax commissioner had written to Yunus informing him that the NBR had also decided to audit the Nobel laureate’s personal tax return for the current financial year, and asking for documentation to “verify” his income and expenditure.
Sabbir Osmani, media spokesperson for the Yunus Centre, said Yunus was “not in a position to comment” on the NBR notices sent to the banks.
In relation to the information sought about Yunus’s own tax return, Osmani said at the time Yunus had lodged it he provided all the information now requested by tax authorities.
“Professor Yunus has always provided all information related to his taxes in a timely manner,” Osmani said.
It was not the first time the NBR has shown an interest in Yunus’ financial affairs.
In 2015, NBR filed a court case against Yunus for allegedly failing to pay $1.5m in tax – an allegation the Nobel Peace Prize winner called “baseless”. The case was subsequently stayed by the High Court.
The latest inquiry is seen by some observers as a possible new step in the ruling Awami League party’s ongoing feud with Yunus, which was initially triggered by his attempt in 2007 to establish a rival political party.
“The NBR has jurisdiction to make these kind of inquiries and if they are done to see if there is any tax evasion or irregularity, that is a good practice,” said Dr Iftekharuzzaman, head of the Bangladesh chapter of Transparency International.
“But if it is politically motivated, to victimise a person, then it is a cause of concern. In the case of Yunus, his taxes have reportedly already been scrutinised in earlier years, including investigations into his accounts and those of Grameen Bank. And if this new inquiry is related to anything other than tax, then it is a matter of apprehension.”
The campaign against the lauded economist started six years ago in November 2010, when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina claimed Yunus was “sucking blood from the poor in the name of poverty alleviation”.
In the following years, government authorities removed Yunus as managing director of Grameen Bank, filed a criminal case against him for food adulteration, and initiated investigations into the bank and its sister companies.
The prime minister has also accused him of lobbying the World Bank to stop its $3bn financing of the Padma bridge, and this year said “the conspirators” seeking to block the grant “will be prosecuted”.
The prime minister’s media adviser, Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, denied that the new NBR inquiries involved any kind of harassment.
“These letters are just a question of a financial institution getting financial information which can happen to any citizen, including ministers and businessman,” Chowdhury said.
“I do not think that this should be treated as new form of harassment. Yunus is a respected person and the government has not filed any case against him, and there is no question of harassment by the government.”
The NBR letters were sent a couple of weeks after US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, a strong supporter of Yunus when she was secretary of state, lost the US election.
In a letter to president-elect Donald Trump, the Bangladeshi prime minister said he had shown “extraordinary leadership [in] serving the American people and also the global humanity”.