OSLO (Reuters) - Nobel peace laureate Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh turned up the heat in battle for control over Bangladesh’s Grameenphone on Friday, warning Norwegian co-owner Telenor ASA (TEL.OL) it may face a lawsuit.
Telenor owns 62 percent of Grameenphone, Bangladesh’s biggest mobile phone operator. Grameen Telecom, a non-profit unit of Yunus’s Grameen Bank, owns the rest and insists that Telenor agreed in 1996 to relinquish control within six years.
Yunus, who shared the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize with his bank for lifting millions out of poverty by granting micro-loans, initially pulled no punches on a visit to Oslo.
“Telenor now tells me that it was a mistake to rely on their words,” Yunus said in a statement late on Thursday.
He blamed Telenor for sullying the Grameen name and demanded that Telenor pay all of the $60 million in fines saddled on Grameenphone by Bangladeshi regulators for alleged illegalities.
He softened his stance at a Friday evening news conference, saying a lawsuit was only a “remote possibility.”
“We are not the kind of people to rush to the courts.”
Telenor said it was “very surprised” by Yunus’s statement, but repeated that the 1996 deal was not binding.
“In the conflict regarding the ownership of Grameenphone, Telenor disagrees with Muhammad Yunus that we have an agreement to sell our stake in the company to him,” Telenor said. It said that the shareholder agreement stipulated disagreements had to be settled through the Swedish courts.
Telenor shares fell 4.1 percent to close at 77.80 crowns, versus a 2.8 percent drop in the Oslo bourse benchmark index and a similar fall in the DJ Stoxx Telecoms Index .SXKP.
Yunus urged the Norwegian people to ensure that Telenor, which is 54 percent state-owned, did the right thing.
“I am bringing the case in front of the public opinion court of Norway,” Yunus said.
“I am confident the people of Norway will see to it that the companies that they own and control honor their written intention, in all cases, and especially when dealing with the poor women of Bangladesh,” Yunus said.
Grameenphone has provided mobiles to 300,000 women in villages who earn a living by letting people use the phones.
Yunus invoked a report this week by Norway’s NRK television that showed child workers used at Grameenphone subcontractors.
He also demanded a full, independent investigation into “illegal activities” that led to $60 million in fines on Grameenphone by Bangladesh for illegal use of voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) in its international operations.
Telenor said it was working to ensure that suppliers to Grameenphone obeyed its rules against the use of child labor and cited Unicef figures showing that child work is extensive in Bangladesh. It said the country had inadequate inspections.
Telenor said it was in “complete agreement” with Yunus that the VOIP issues must be investigated.
Telenor and Yunus both said that listing Grameenphone on the Dhaka bourse remains a goal.
“The IPO could be this year or next ... At the moment, things are a bit unpredictable,” spokesman Dag Melgaard said. He declined to say how much Telenor wanted to own after an
Yunus said an IPO would be small because the Dhaka stock market could not handle a huge sale of stock and he said it could only be carried out by Telenor selling shares.
In a bizarre twist, Telenor let slip in a botched press release it later retracted that Yunus was wearing a recording device in meetings with Telenor executives. “It’s true, and the wire-tapper is right here,” Yunus said, pointing to a cameraman accompanying him to make a documentary.
(Additional reporting by Wojciech Moskwa; Editing by David Holmes and Braden Reddall)
$1=5.585 Norwegian Crown