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20 December, 2019 12:10:08 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 20 December, 2019 05:09:44 PM

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Telenor sends legal notice to president for arbitration

Staff Reporter, Dhaka
Telenor sends legal notice to president for arbitration

Telenor Group, the main shareholder of country’s largest mobile phone operator Grameenphone, has sent a legal notice to President Abdul Hamid seeking arbitration to resolve the Tk 1,258 crore audit dispute between the operator and Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC). Posts and Telecommunications Minister Mustafa Jabbar yesterday disclosed the matter saying that Grameenphone (GP) parent company Telenor has recently sent a legal notice to the president.

The minister was addressing members of Telecom Reporters' Network Bangladesh (TRNB) at his office in the capital.

The minister also welcomed a proposal made by Robi, the second largest mobile phone operator, to withdraw its lawsuits against the government over an audit dispute. The government has agreed to sit with the operator soon after withdrawal of the cases in court, he added.

Following an audit of Robi’s books of accounts, BTRC had served a notice to the operator to pay the Tk867.23 in dues to the regulator and the National Board of Revenue (NBR). However, Robi contested the audit claims and filed cases in courts to settle the matter.  Sources said the legal notice to the president was sent by the Asia office in Singapore of

Norwegian Telenor under the Business Investment Treaty (BIT) to take the issue to Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) or investment court system (ICS). Telenor authorities have sent the notice claiming that it has invested a huge amount of money in GP in Bangladesh. But, the company is now facing crisis over the audit dispute with the telecoms regulator BTRC, which is jeopardising the Norwegian company’s investment, according to the Telenor notice.

Sources said an agreement exists between Bangladesh and Singapore over the BIT that allows any party to send legal notice or appoint an international arbitrator to settle their investment problem, if there is any. However, there is no BIT agreement between Bangladesh and Norway. As such, Telenor, where the Norway government is a majority stockholder, could not send legal notice to the Bangladesh government to bring the issue to the international court, sources added.    

Meanwhile, a high official of BRTC told The Independent that the Telenor could not legally send a notice to the Bangladesh government as per the law. The Supreme Court has already asked the BTRC and GP not to proceed with the audit dispute issue to the international court as the issues is now under the jurisdiction of the apex court, he claimed.

Telecom law expert Barrister Tanjib-ul Alam, however, said, “Legally, there is no problem for the Grameenphone to send the legal notice to the Bangladesh president demanding arbitration to resolve the disputed audit claim of Tk 12,580 crore by BTRC as each and every treaty of the country have been made in the name of the president.” The agreement between the Grameenphone parent company Telenor and Bangladesh have been made in the name of the president. If there is any problem arising in the treaty, any party could send a legal notice demanding the arbitration to resolve the dispute, he added.

In response to a query, barrister Tanjib said the GP authorities (Telenor) have sent the legal notice as per Article 144 of the Constitution. So, there is no legal problem for the GP to send the legal notice to the president as the GP authorities is free to attempt to resolve the audit dispute through transparent and fair means.

In response to another query, the telecom law expert noted that there is no way to commit contempt of court by GP as the Supreme Court has given an interim order over the matter. “There is a scope to resolve the crisis through an amicable talk by forming an independent body taking representative from GP to resolve the disputed audit claim with BRTC,” he added.

When asked to comment on the matter, Grameenphone provided a statement from Cathrine Stang Lund, Director, Group Communication Asia of Telenor Group, which said, “GP is not a party to this process. For Telenor Group, it is important to protect its assets in Bangladesh. Telenor has sent a notice to seek resolution of a dispute and invited the Government of Bangladesh to meet to discuss the matter and work towards a constructive solution. The BIT process itself encourages dialogue, and Telenor still believes the best way forward is that the authorities and the operators agree on an amicable and transparent solution to the disputed audit”

During the briefing at the ministry, the telecom minister said, “We shouldn’t worry about the notice because all they want is to go for arbitration, to which we’re open.”

“In Bangladesh, one has to file a case in the court and wait. There’s no scope for out-of-court arbitration,” the minister said, adding that the government has consulted legal experts on the matter.

“We can have arbitration if the court orders us. They can’t seek justice in any other country defying the law of the land where they’re running business. We’re on the right path,” the minister claimed.

Grameenphone may opt for going to the international court if there is no arbitration, said the minister.

“However, I feel it won’t be fruitful for them to go the international court if they lose the case here in Bangladesh court,” the minister added.

The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, on November 24, ordered GP to pay Tk. 2,000 crore to BTRC within three months. A seven-member full bench of the Appellate Division headed by Chief Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain issued the order after disposing of a petition filed by BTRC against the High Court (HC) injunction order on realising around Tk. 12,580 crore due from GP. On November 14, GP agreed to deposit Tk. 200 crore with BTRC against its claim of Tk. 12,580 crore.

A lawyer for BTRC told the court that GP should clear 50 per cent of its Tk. 12,580 crore dues immediately. On November 17, the SC asked GP not to go for any arbitration or out-of-court settlement with the government over the telecom regulator’s audit claim for around Tk. 12,580 crore.

In 2016, BTRC claimed Tk. 12,579.95 crore from the mobile phone operator in taxes and late fees accumulated over the years after running an audit on the company books.

BTRC ran its first audit on GP back in 2011 and found financial discrepancies amounting to Tk. 3,034 crore in the operator’s books, from its inception in 1996 till March 2011.

GP then disputed the appointment process of the auditing firm. After a court ruling, BTRC in October 2015 appointed another firm, Toha Khan Zaman & Co, to run a new audit on GP’s books from its inception until June 2015.

JGD

 

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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