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Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner threatened with imprisonment in Bangladesh

This article comes from Figaro Magazine.

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Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner threatened with imprisonment in Bangladesh

This article comes from Figaro Magazine

We find Muhammad Yunus in a teleconversation at the beginning of April. He is dressed in a traditional collarless shirt, with blue and white checks, and he explains at length about a legal and political persecution against which he can do almost nothing, except to play on his international notoriety. “It’s the only thing that protects me from prison or other more severe penalties,” he tells us. Because the Bengali duel between the “iron begum” and the Nobel Peace Prize winner is taking place behind closed doors, far from the rest of the world, busy elsewhere.

Sheikh Hasina, 76, was re-elected prime minister of Bangladesh for her fifth term earlier this year, after muzzling all opposition through prison or forced exile. Its autocratic regime thrives in the shadow of the India of Narendra Modi, with which it has allied itself, although Muslim. An alliance that weighs down her popularity, but she doesn't care. On the other hand, she wants to gag Muhammad Yunus, 83, who is a celebrity in this country of 171 million people, the most densely populated in the world - 1,200 inhabitants per square kilometer.

“An explanation often given for her deep hatred towards me is that deep down she is jealous because I am better known than her abroad,” Yunus tells us. He has been a celebrity since he was nominated - an extremely rare double - for the Nobel Prizes for Economics and Peace. His invention of microcredit should have earned him the first, but he was finally crowned with the second in 2006. Today Today, it has more than 5,000 representatives in 150 countries and has become the tireless proselytizer of social capitalism whose credo is the reinvestment of all profits in the company. He is expected in France this summer to highlight the social entrepreneurship initiatives developed under his name for the Paris Olympics.

He is not sure if he will be authorized to do so, because he was sentenced to six months in prison in early January to answer for an alleged violation of labor law in one of his companies. “I appealed the decision; now I'm out on bail. I could be sent to prison at any time. The general opinion is that it depends on the goodwill of the Prime Minister,” he explains to us.

This conviction is only the beginning, because Yunus is the owner of numerous companies and he is involved in more than 180 trials. In addition to jealousy, it is above all the political threat that he represents which irritates Sheikh Hasina to the greatest extent. “When I received the award, the whole country celebrated it, because it was the first time that one of its nationals had been rewarded in this way. Subsequently, some people exerted strong pressure for me to create my political party, he remembers. I hesitated a lot and, at first, I accepted. But after just ten weeks, I gave up: politics was not my cup of tea.”

At the time, Sheik Hasina was a long-time political figure, daughter of the country's main architect of independence, who was assassinated in the 1970s when he attempted to impose an authoritarian regime based on a single party. Like father like daughter. “She concluded that I had a political agenda because of this brief episode and, since then, she has not let me go.” Thus, in 2011, she ejected him from the Grameen Bank (the village bank), which he had created in 1983 in the south of Bangladesh, after several years of experimentation to develop microcredit. It lends the equivalent of 1.1 billion euros annually to 8.4 million Bangladeshis. She also accused him of having worked for the suspension of aid from the World Bank for the construction of the largest bridge in the country. During its inauguration, she demonstrated unprecedented verbal violence by declaring that Yunus should be “thrown from the bridge, then recovered alive to throw him again so that he suffers as much as possible”. She regularly calls him a “sucker of the blood of the poor”. The letter of support from 60 Nobel Prize winners and numerous heads of state does not impress him.

Stoic, Yunus continues to absorb the blows. But he decided to speak out more directly to defend himself. “I have been offered asylum in many countries, and I am very grateful, but I do not want to leave Bangladesh. I can't abandon colleagues and life's work. My destiny is here. If I have to go to prison, I will go to prison.”

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