MUMBAI — A court in Bangladesh on Tuesday upheld the dismissal of the Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus from the microfinance bank he founded and has run for three decades.
The Bangladesh High Court rejected an appeal by Mr. Yunus challenging the central bank, Bangladesh Bank, which removed him last week as managing director of Grameen Bank. Lawyers for Mr. Yunus, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Grameen Bank in 2006, said Tuesday that he would appeal to the Bangladeshi Supreme Court.
The ruling is the latest part of a months-long battle over the control of Grameen Bank between the Bangladeshi government and Mr. Yunus, an economist who is celebrated around the world for popularizing microfinance but has fallen out of favor with the leaders of his country.
In a letter sent to Grameen’s board last week, Bangladesh Bank said it was removing Mr. Yunus from his post because Grameen Bank had not obtained permission from the regulators before reappointing him, as required by law. On Tuesday, the High Court agreed with the central bank, ruling that Mr. Yunus’s term in office had expired in 1999, the year before he turned 60.
Mr. Yunus, who is 70, disputed that assertion. In a statement issued late Monday, he said that Bangladesh Bank had conducted annual audits of Grameen and had raised the issue of his age only once, in 1999.
He said that he had been named managing director by the board with the permission of the central bank, and that the board, which includes government appointees, had unanimously decided that there should be no age limit for the position.
Mr. Yunus said that he wanted to step down as the bank’s managing director but that there must be “a smooth transition of management leadership from me to the next managing director in a congenial environment.”
The push to remove Mr. Yunus started late last year after a Norwegian documentary accused him and Grameen Bank of improperly transferring to an affiliate $100 million that had been donated to the bank by Norway. The money was retransferred after Norwegian officials complained about the transfer. In a statement issued last year, Norway cleared Grameen and Mr. Yunus of wrongdoing.
After the documentary’s accusations came to light, the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, said Mr. Yunus and other microfinance firms were “sucking blood from the poor in the name of poverty alleviation.” The government also stepped up its oversight and supervision of the bank, arguing that it was poorly governed.
Ms. Hasina and Mr. Yunus, who has been critical of politicians, had once been close, but their relationship soured when he briefly floated a political party in 2007.
With its 8.3 million borrowers, almost all of them poor women, and $10 billion in loans, Grameen plays an outsize role in Bangladesh’s economic and political life. Foreign governments, including the United States, have spoken in support of Mr. Yunus and told Bangladeshi officials that they were closely following his case.
Though almost wholly owned by its customers, Grameen has a special, quasi-public status in Bangladesh. The bank was created in 1983 by an act of the government, which initially owned a quarter of the shares in it. The government, which now owns less than 4 percent of the bank, also has the right to appoint three of the 12 directors of Grameen’s boards. The others are elected by the customer-owners of the bank.
The government-appointed chairman of Grameen’s board, Muzammel Huq, said Tuesday that the board would meet soon to pick a new managing director. The meeting could be contentious given that the nine directors appointed by Grameen’s customers had also appealed Mr. Yunus’s removal.
“The majority decision will prevail; everything will be recorded,” Mr. Huq said by telephone. The board has traditionally operated “through consensus, and we will try to keep that consensus.”
By VIKAS BAJAJ
Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting from Dhaka and Lydia Polgreen from New Delhi.
A version of this article appeared in print on March 9, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune.