US announces Bangladesh-specific visa policy to promote democratic elections

Dhaka: The United States has announced a new visa policy for Bangladesh, restricting travel permits of individuals responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the January 2024 elections to be held in the South Asian country.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday announced the new policy under the Immigration and Nationality Act to support Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair and peaceful national elections.

“Under this policy, we can impose visa restrictions on individuals and their immediate family members if they are responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh,” he said.

Blinken said the current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, members of law enforcement agencies, judiciary, and security services could come under the purview of the new policy.

According to a US state department statement, Washington had notified the Bangladesh government of this decision on May 3.

The statement said the policy would apply for “actions that undermine the democratic election process, including vote rigging and voter intimidation”.

It said the policy would also apply to the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views.

Blinken said holding of free and fair elections is the responsibility of everyone – voters, political parties, the government, security forces, civil society, and the media.

“I am announcing this policy to lend our support to all those seeking to advance democracy in Bangladesh,” he said.

Talking to the media in Dhaka, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen on Thursday said a pre-emptive US warning to impose visa restrictions against individuals to be assumed to be disrupting fair elections in the country was supportive to the commitment of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government.

“The new US policy rather made our (government) position stronger to hold the free and fair election,” Momen said.

He said the “policy is good, nothing to worry about it” and added that it mounted no extra pressure on the Bangladesh government.

Meanwhile, the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been waging a campaign to restore a non-party caretaker government to oversee the elections, saying no polls under Prime Minister Hasina’s administration would be free.

The BNP has also vowed not to take part in any election under the incumbent Awami League-led government.

The US state department, however, last week said Washington was not concerned about participation of any particular party in Bangladesh’s next elections but it wanted the polls to be fair and held in a congenial environment.

The foreign minister expected that the new US visa policy would make cautious opposition political parties not to wage any violence over the elections.

“This visa restriction is not only for the ruling party, for opposition (parties) as well,” he said, adding that the government doesn’t want arson, violence and destruction.

“This policy supports Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s stated commitment to hold free and fair elections in Bangladesh and allow the US to act when Bangladeshi citizens or officials from all political parties undermine the critical demand of democracy,” Momen quoted a Blinken letter addressed to him as saying.

He said the ruling Awami League “always believes in voters”.

Momen’s remarks came shortly after his foreign ministry issued a statement saying the Bangladesh government took note of the US announcement on “a visa restriction policy pursuant to the so-called 3C provision under the US Immigration and Act”.

“Bangladesh would like to view this announcement in the broader context of its government’s unequivocal commitment to holding free and fair elections at all levels for upholding the country’s democratic process,” it said.

“The people’s right to franchise is considered a state sanctity by the Awami League government that has a political legacy of unrelenting struggles and sacrifice for securing that right. The government attaches importance to freedom of assembly and association for all peaceful and legitimate democratic processes,” it read.

The US had decided to send a pre-election observer mission to Bangladesh in the coming months, but it did not confirm the exact timeframe of the mission’s tour.

Blinken’s statement also comes amid speculation that the US might mount pressure on Bangladesh against the backdrop of the ongoing geo-politics ahead of the country’s general elections in early January 2024.

On December 10 last, the US Treasury Department had imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) as well as seven of its current and former officers over human rights violations.

The country had protested the sanctions, urging the US to review its decision.