Nobel laureate Yunus in Bangladesh court

Nobel peace prize winner Muhammad Yunus appeared in a Bangladesh court on Tuesday in a defamation case dating back to 2007, posing further legal problems for the microfinance pioneer in his homeland.

Last week, the government ordered a probe into Yunus's Grameen Bank, with which he shared the Nobel prize in 2006, in the latest sign of friction between him and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Hasina, who recently accused microfinance groups of "sucking blood from the poor," first clashed with Yunus in 2007 when he set up his own short-lived political party.

In that year, he gave an interview to AFP in which he said Bangladesh's politics was simply about the "power to make money," prompting a defamation complaint by a low-ranking official of a minor left-leaning party.

The case has lain dormant since 2007, but Yunus was Tuesday summoned to court in Memensingh district, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Dhaka, where he appeared for about 10 minutes.

"I appeared before a court today in response to a summons," Yunus told AFP by email. "I believe that the courts are here to deliver justice, and look forward to this matter being resolved soon."

Asked if he had now distanced himself from his 2007 comments, Yunus said that "since the matter is before the courts, it won't be appropriate to make any further comment."

The court has granted Yunus bail and allowed a nominee to appear at the next hearing, which has been set by the judge for February 20, court inspector Shahid Shoqrana told AFP.

"His lawyers argued that he is a major international personality so it is impossible for him to appear in court every day," Shoqrana said.

Yunus's lawyer, AHM Khalequzzaman, told AFP that he did not believe his client's 2007 comments were strong enough to merit a defamation case.

"Look, it was a general comment, it was not targeted against any one person, so we argued that it cannot amount to any defamation," he said.

"This case is a type of harassment against my client. But Yunus is planning to appeal to the High Court in an effort to quash the case," he added.

The original complaint was lodged in January 2007 by an official from the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal party which is allied to the prime minister's ruling Awami League, prosecution lawyer Abul Kalam Mohammad Azad said.

"We objected to Yunus being given permission to not appear in person, but we were overruled," prosecution lawyer Abul Kalam Mohammad Azad told AFP.

"It has taken years to come to court because judicial enquiries take time in Bangladesh," he said.

Local police said more than 500 people gathered at the Memensingh court building to catch a glimpse of Yunus, who is a hugely popular figure in rural Bangladesh.

"We can confirm that Yunus appeared in court, was granted bail and was exempted from further appearances," Grameen Bank spokeswoman Jannat-e-Quanine told AFP.

She declined to comment on whether the case was politically motivated.

The separate government probe into Grameen Bank was ordered after a Norwegian documentary claimed the organisation had misused Norwegian aid.

A Norwegian investigation cleared Yunus, but Hasina has since accused Yunus of pulling a "trick" to avoid tax.

The probe into Grameen and the case against Yunus come as the microfinance industry is under fire in neighbouring India over accusations of profiteering through high interest rates and heavy-handed debt collection.

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