Bangladesh President Sheikh Hasina at a security conference in Munich, Germany, February 18, 2017. Photo: AFP Forum/Tobias Hase
Bangladesh President Sheikh Hasina at a security conference in Munich, Germany, February 18, 2017. Photo: AFP Forum/Tobias Hase

For months on the defensive against opposition attacks, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheik Hasina is on a political rebound with help from an unlikely foreign ally – US President Donald Trump.

The two leaders met briefly in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of last month’s Arab Islamic American summit. The private discussions apparently centered on former US Secretary of State and presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton’s past dealings with Nobel laureate and micro-credit guru Mohammed Yunus.

Yunus was forced out as head of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank in March 2011 under Hasina government claims he wrongly held the financial institution’s top position past the state’s mandatory retirement age of 60. Yunus contested the charge, saying the bank he founded operated under different regulations, but he eventually stepped down.

Hasina’s close aides say Clinton repeatedly tried to have Yunus, her known close associate, reinstated but Hasina resisted what they viewed as undue diplomatic pressure. They claimed on one occasion Hasina even slammed down the phone on Clinton after she personally pressed the case.

The same aides believe this led to the Barack Obama administration’s subsequent decision in 2013 to suspend Bangladesh’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) privileges, a system which allows certain developing countries duty-free access to US markets.

Bangladesh, a long time beneficiary of the program, was at the time seeking GSP treatment for its crucial garments sector. Washington’s official reason for the suspension was lack of progress on labor rights.

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) meets with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka May 5, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

The suspension came just months ahead of Bangladesh’s January 2014 general election, which Hasina’s Awami League party won in a largely uncontested race due to opposition parties’ boycotts against an election system they felt was biased in favor of the government. Dozens, including many policemen, died in election-related violence.

While Hasina’s government has come under sustained Western pressure on rights issues, Trump appears keen to leverage information or allegations he may have learned during his discussions with Hasina to further weaken his Democrat party rival.

Soon after Trump’s return from Riyadh, the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary, led by his ruling Republican party, launched an investigation into whether Clinton abused her position to intervene in an “independent investigation” against Yunus by the “sovereign government” of Bangladesh.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the committee, asked in a letter addressed to the US State Department to make former deputy chief of mission of the US Embassy in Dhaka, Jon Danilowicz, available for an interview with his committee staff.

Grameen Bank founder Mohammad Yunus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Grassley wrote the letter to Trump-appointed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on June 1, asking his department to provide information by June 15 and posted the letter on his website.

The allegations against Clinton, of course, are old hat in Dhaka. Hasina’s son, Sajeed Wazed Joy, had earlier publicly accused Clinton of threatening him with an Internal Revenue Service audit if his mother failed to quash investigations against Yunus and reinstate him as the Grameen Bank’s head.

Joy had also claimed Yunus misappropriated Norwegian aid money received by his micro-credit organization to make lavish donations to the Clinton Foundation in return for US backing for a political party he planned to form with elements from a previous military caretaker government that had once jailed Hasina.

The US Senate Committee, now under Trump’s political influence, appears to have latched on to the several years-old allegations.

US Senator Chuck Grassley speaks after the weekly Republican caucus policy luncheon at the US Capitol in Washington, April 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Eric Thayer

“If the secretary of state used her position to intervene in an independent investigation by a sovereign government simply because of a personal and financial relationship stemming from the Clinton Foundation rather than the legitimate foreign policy interests of the United States,” Grassley wrote, “then that would be unacceptable.”

“Co-mingling her official position as secretary of state with her family foundation would be similarly inappropriate,” the letter said.

Grassley also wrote that email records show that State Department officials, including Clinton, and Clinton Foundation staff closely monitored an attempt to remove Yunus from his position and that the US ambassador to Bangladesh at the time sought meetings with Hasina “to apply pressure in an attempt to end the investigation into Yunus.”

While Yunus has acknowledged making donations to the Clinton Foundation, he has strongly denied the allegations of malfeasance, which have never been proven. Yunus later challenged his dismissal at the Supreme Court, but lost the case and has been at loggerheads with the Hasina administration ever since.

Clinton representatives have also refuted the allegations. Former Obama administration press secretary Brian Fallon said in response to a previous Associated Press investigation into the issue that it was “outrageous” to “misrepresent” Clinton’s meetings with donors to the Clinton Foundation, including Yunus, at the US State Department and that any insinuation of impropriety was a “distorted portrayal.”

Former US President Bill Clinton at a Clinton Foundation event in New York, February 10, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Neither Clinton nor Yunus, who was paid to make presentations on microcredit by the Clinton Foundation, have released public statements on Grassley’s request for information.

The US Senate inquiry comes as a major boost for Hasina and her ruling Awami League party as they prepare for new parliamentary elections due next year.

“We have been vindicated, all his (Yunus) conspiracies now stand exposed,” said Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader about the US Senate inquiry into Clinton. “He conspired to stop Bangladesh’s development.”

Hasina has blamed Yunus for leveraging his influence in Washington to convince the World Bank to stop its funding of a US$3 billion, 6.1-kilometer multipurpose bridge to span the transboundary Padma river, the country’s largest ever infrastructure project and a flagship of Hasina’s economic program.

The project was temporarily halted on corruption allegations months after Yunus’ ouster from the Grameen Bank, but was later resumed by Hasina’s government using local financial resources.

People ride on a boat at sunset over the Padma River on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh on September 29, 2016. Photo: AFP Forum/Rehman Asad

On that front, too, Hasina has reason to rejoice. In February, the Ontario Superior Court in Canada dismissed the case at the prosecution’s request against three officials of the Canadian SNS-Lavalin company after a long legal battle on charges it paid bribes to Bangladesh officials to win project contracts.

The Trump-initiated Clinton probe into alleged misconduct has given Hasina a political lift ahead of crucial polls, where she will seek a third term. It has also brought her in line – at least for now – with Trump, who aides note she was quick to congratulate on his White House win after wrangling with the Obama administration.

Bangladesh Foreign Secretary MD Shahidul Haque told Asia Times that Trump told Hasina during their discussions that he would visit Bangladesh “fairly soon.” If the probe into Clinton gains momentum in Washington, and if Hasina makes good on her vow to uproot Islamic extremism, then a Trump visit could come sooner rather than later.

“She already enjoys strong Indian, Russian and Chinese support,” said Jayanta Roy, head of a local think tank focused on India-Bangladesh relations. “If she now gets Trump’s backing, it is a huge boost for Hasina in an election season.”