The Supreme Court yesterday ordered Grameenphone to pay Tk 1,000 crore by Monday, in a development that can be viewed as the walls closing in on the country's leading mobile operator in its protracted tussle with the telecom regulator over unpaid dues.
"First pay Tk 1,000 crore to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission and then come on February 24 [Monday] for further orders," said Chief Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain, who led the seven-member Appellate Division bench, while passing the order yesterday.
The order came in response to a review petition filed by Grameenphone earlier on January 26 to allow it to pay Tk 575 crore in 12 equal instalments.
The review petition was filed after the apex court had directed Grameenphone on November 24 last year to pay Tk 2,000 crore to the telecom regulator within three months (by February 23) against the claim of Tk 12,579.96 crore determined by an audit.
The audit, which looked into Grameenphone's books from its inception until 2014, claimed that the carrier owed the amount in revenue shares, taxes and late fees.
But at the hearing yesterday for the review petition, Grameenphone's counsellor AM Amin Uddin requested the SC to grant the operator six months to pay Tk 500 crore out of the court's earlier order for payment of Tk 2,000 crore.
In response the chief justice said: "You feel that the court of Bangladesh is very small. It is very painful. This is the highest court of the country."
He also said: "BTRC's claim is Tk 12,000 crore. We had asked you to pay Tk 2,000 core. Are you ignoring the order of the Appellate Division?"
Attorney General Mahbubey Alam, who represents the BTRC, told the court that no money was paid by Grameenphone to the telecom watchdog after the court delivered the order.
But the full amount will be collected once an administrator is appointed for running the carrier, he added.
Mehedi Hasan Chowdhury, one of the lawyers fighting for Grameenphone, told The Daily Star the compound interest rate was applied on the Norwegian Telenor Group's subsidiary's late fees.
But in the case of Robi, which was locked in a similar tussle with the telecom regulator, simple interest rate was used, he said.
NO OPTION BUT TO PAY TK 1,000CR: BTRC
After the court order, BTRC Chairman Md Jahurul Haque told The Daily Star that Grameenphone now has no option but to pay the Tk 1,000 crore.
"It is my personal opinion that this time Grameenphone will pay the public money," he told the correspondent yesterday at his office following the apex court's order.
After receiving the Tk 1,000 crore, the telecom regulator will decide whether the bar imposed on Grameenphone for network equipment import and package approval will be lifted.
If Grameenphone refuses to pay the sum on Monday, the BTRC would proceed as per the telecom act, which empowers it to appoint an administrator.
And the telecom regulator has taken all preparations for appointing the administrator should Grameenphone fail to pay up on February 24.
The BTRC chairman even met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at her office on Monday and discussed a few potential candidates for the panel of administrators.
"But everything will depend on Monday's order. We do not intend to embezzle from Grameenphone. Rather, we want to collect public money. The administrative panel's main responsibility will be to realise the amount."
The administrator will enjoy full authority over hiring and firing of employees just as a chief executive officer would, while the remuneration will be similar to that of the company's top brass, he added.
GRAMEENPHONE'S OPTION TO ARRANGE THE SUM
Contacted, Grameenphone said: "We have not received the relief that we were seeking in our review petition. We have no further comments at the moment."
The operator declined to disclose whether it will pay the sum.
But arranging the sum stipulated by the apex court is unlikely to be too difficult for the operator.
The operator logged in Tk 3,450 crore as net profit in 2019. After disbursing 130 percent cash dividend for 2019 to the 135.03 crore shares, the carrier still has Tk 1,695 crore.
Including money retained from the previous year, the carrier has Tk 2,123.26 crore.
Given the substantial amount retained from net profit, Grameenphone Chief Executive Officer Yasir Azman was pelted with the question in his first press conference two weeks ago: was it for depositing to the national coffer?
He, however, remained circumspect.