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Bangladesh Trying To Fire Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Laureate, From Microlender Grameen

FARID HOSSAIN   03/02/11 10:36 AM ET EST  AP

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Bangladesh's government ordered Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus from his post as head of his microfinance bank Wednesday – a humiliating blow for an activist whose revolutionary idea of giving out small loans lifted many out of poverty. But the Grameen Bank said he remained in charge and that it would fight the decision.

The demand for Yunus' removal as Grameen's managing director capped a string of problems that faced the outspoken government critic, including an apparently politically motivated defamation trial and accusations of an unauthorized bank transfer 15 years ago.

Bangladesh's central bank ordered him out, arguing that he violated the country's retirement laws, A.F.M. Asaduzzaman, an official at Bangladesh Bank, told The Associated Press. Grameen Bank has been notified by letter, Asaduzzaman said, providing no further details. The government owns a 25 percent stake in Grameen, while the remainder of the bank is owned by its borrowers.

In a statement, however, Grameen said Yunus was still holding his post.

Yunus is "continuing his work as the managing director of the bank," said the brief statement signed by Jannat-E-Quanine, general manager of the bank. "Since it's a legal issue, we will fight it legally."

Yunus consulted a lawyer Wednesday.

"The legal process will be followed; the law will determine what happens," he said after emerging from his lawyer's office, without offering more details.

Yunus founded the bank three decades ago, pioneering the concept of reducing poverty by making tiny loans to the poor. His work, which spurred a boom in such lending across the developing world, earned him and the bank the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

Recently, Yunus has been under pressure at home. In addition to his legal troubles, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has accused Grameen Bank and other microfinance institutions of charging high interest rates and "sucking blood from the poor borrowers."

But he remains a hero to the poor.

Shefali Akter, 25, who has taken out two loans totaling 70,000 takas ($1,000) from Grameen since 2002, called Yunus' removal "bad news."

"The bank is all about him," she told The Associated Press by phone from northern Mymensingh district. "We know he is a respected man. He has brought honor to the country. We all have respect for him."

Efforts to remove Yunus from Grameen intensified in recent weeks, with the central bank claiming that the 70-year-old Yunus violated the country's retirement laws by staying on as the bank's head well past the mandatory retirement age of 60.

Grameen Bank says the normal retirement rule does not apply to it because the bank is run under a special 1983 law. Yunus was appointed managing director of the bank for an indefinite period in 2000, when he reached 60, the bank says.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Abul Mal Abdul Muhith told reporters he had received a letter from the central bank accusing Yunus of flouting the retirement rules.

Khondoker Muzammel Huq, chairman of Grameen, received a copy of the letter and presented it Monday to the bank's board, but adjourned the meeting without making a decision on it.

Controversy swirled around Yunus after a Norwegian television documentary that screened in December accused him of transferring Norwegian development funds from Grameen Bank to another venture without prior approval in 1996. Pressure by the Norwegian Embassy in Dhaka resulted in the funds being transferred back in 1998, and the Norwegian government has said there was no indication Grameen was engaged in corruption or embezzlement.

In a recent statement, the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee defended the panel's decision to award Yunus the peace prize.

"Without going into detail since there is a 50-year secrecy rule for the entire Nobel system, I can testify to the fact that the vetting process was actually even more thorough than what is normally the case," Geir Lundestad said.

Still, the Bangladesh government set up a committee in January to look into the allegations.

Yunus is also facing a defamation trial in connection with a 2007 interview in which he was quoted as saying, "They (politicians) are only after money. Their politics has nothing to do with ideology."

His lawyers have argued that since his comments were not directed at any specific person, they do not constitute defamation.

At the time of the remarks, Bangladesh was under a state of emergency and many politicians, including Hasina, the current prime minister, were behind bars on charges of corruption. An interim government backed by the country's influential military eventually handed over power to the elected government of Hasina in January 2009.

Grameen Bank, founded in 1983 in Bangladesh, currently has nearly 9 million borrowers, 97 percent of whom are women. Many use their small loans to make ends meet or to start small businesses.

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Associated Press writer Karl Ritter contributed to this report from Stockholm.

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