Bangladesh's Nobel-winning microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus on Thursday launched a legal battle to overturn an attempt by the government to force him from the celebrated bank he founded.
The 70-year-old famed economist, who was abruptly sacked as managing director of Grameen Bank by the central bank on Wednesday, said he was keen to step down but he wanted a "graceful solution" to his exit.
Yunus defied the central bank order and returned to work on Thursday at Grameen's headquarters in Dhaka before later lodging a case in the High Court contesting the legality of his dismissal.
"I have said repeatedly that I don't want to be in the position of managing director but the (Grameen Bank) board would not accept my resignation," he said outside the court after a two-and-a-half hour hearing.
"I want a graceful solution to my departure from Grameen, so that whoever comes to the position after me, they will have a good bank to run well."
A day earlier, the central bank said the author and world-famous inventor of microfinance had been "removed from his position" as managing director for failing to follow the law when he was re-appointed in 2000.
The Dhaka court will rule on the dismissal on Sunday, court officials told AFP.
Supporters say Yunus's troubles stem from 2007 when he floated the idea of forming a political party, earning the wrath of powerful Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who has publicly disparaged his work.
The US Ambassador in Dhaka, James F. Moriarty, told reporters that the sudden move against Yunus was "deeply troubling."
"It strikes us as an unusual way to handle a Nobel laureate who is considered outside (of Bangladesh) as one of the greatest Bangladeshis," he said.
"He has done great things to pull people out of poverty so to remove him... years later over a technicality is very difficult to understand," he added.
Grameen Bank pioneered micro-lending in the 1980s, a system in which small amounts of money are lent to poor entrepreneurs outside the mainstream banking system, catapulting Yunus to fame and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.
"Yunus himself had expressed his intent to retire on many occasions, but why is this humiliation for such a respected person? This is like destroying the image of the country," Yunus's lawyer Kamal Hossain told the court on Thursday.
The government's lawyer, attorney general Mahbubey Alam, revived the government's previous attempts to force out Yunus, saying he had passed the retirement age of 60.
Finance Minister A.M.A. Muhith stuck to the legal argument of the central bank, saying Yunus had occupied his position illegally because he had failed to obtain prior approval from the central bank when he was re-appointed.
Muhith told foreign ambassadors and heads of multilateral agencies in Dhaka that "the law took its routine course."
The legislation grants the central bank sweeping powers, including the right to dismiss senior management figures at private banks -- a right it has invoked several times in the past.
Muhith said the government was not seeking to destroy 25 percent state-owned Grameen Bank, which was "an institution in which the government takes pride."
Norway, a funder of Grameen, has spoken out strongly against the attempts to force Yunus out, with International Development Minister Erik Solheim telling news agency NTB on Wednesday that his removal was "a very sad development."
"What we see is a brutal internal power struggle in Bangladesh... Yunus was a popular person, both at home and abroad, and that always leads to opponents," he added, hinting at the rivalry between Yunus and Hasina.
Local economists warned the government's "hasty decision" could prompt a collapse of confidence or even a bank run in the country's vast microfinance sector.
Grameen Bank has more than eight million customers, providing collateral-free loans in 82,000 villages across Bangladesh.
Source: AFP Asian Edition