Top Bangladesh cellphone company pays $117M in legal tussle

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DHAKA,Bangladesh (AP) — Bangladesh’s leading cellphone operator paid $117 million to the country’s telecommunication regulator on Sunday amid a protracted legal tussle with the government that could result in the loss of its license to operate in one of the world’s fastest-growing mobile markets, officials said.

Zakir Hossain Khan, a spokesman for the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, or BTRC, said by phone that Grameenphone, a subsidiary of the Norwegian telecommunication giant Telenor, handed over the documents for clearing the payment of $117 million as per the directive of the country’s Supreme Court.

The commission accused Grameenphone of evading spectrum fees and value-added taxes, but the operator has insisted that the government’s audit is flawed.

The first payment Sunday was against the regulatory commission’s audit claim of about $1.48 billion in unpaid taxes. But it was not immediately clear how the amount would be adjusted with the total amount stemming from the audit claims.

Sunday’s action by the operator came after the Supreme Court recently asked Grameenphone to pay at least $237 million by Feb. 23 amid obstacles put by the commission that were hampering the operator’s operations and expansion.

The commission had imposed restrictions on the operator, declining no-objection certificates for imports of network equipment since July, while it also issued show-cause notice for license cancellation and threatened to appoint an administrator.

Md Hasan, a spokesman for Grameenphone, said after Sunday’s move that the next proceedings in the case would be Monday in the Supreme Court. “We have paid $117 million,” he said.

Separately, Grameenphone said in a statement Sunday that the operator “respects the legal system of Bangladesh” and the company “has without prejudice made an adjustable deposit."

The operator remained cautious and said it “reiterates that it disputes the validity of the BTRC audit claim, and this deposit should not be seen an admission of liability. It is our ambition to resolve the audit dispute, either through an amicable and transparent solution or before the courts.”

Grameenphone is a joint venture between Telenor, the largest telecommunications service provider in Norway with mobile phone operations in 12 other countries, and Grameen Telecom, a nonprofit organization in Bangladesh. The remaining shares belong to general retail and institutional investors.

The company has 76.6 million subscribers, holding about 46.18% market share in the South Asian country's burgeoning telecommunications sector.

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