US announces Bangladesh-specific visa policy to promote democratic polls
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Dhaka: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has announced a new visa policy for Bangladesh by restricting travel permit of individuals whom it would assume be responsible for hindering the January 2024 elections to be held in the South Asian country.

“Today, I am announcing a new visa policy under Section 212(a)(3)(C) (3C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act to support Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair and peaceful national elections,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Under this policy, the United States will be able to restrict the issuance of visas for any Bangladeshi individual, believed to be 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 Bangladeshi 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 on 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.

The US Secretary of State 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.

Blinken’s announcement comes a week after a senior visiting state department official said Washington was not concerned about participation of any particular party in Bangladesh’s next elections, but wanted the polls to be fair and held in a congenial environment.

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 Sheikh 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.

“We (however) are not making a comment on whether or not elections are participatory, more we are focused on the electoral environment (in Bangladesh),” US Deputy Assistant Secretary Afreen Akhter told the state-run BSS news agency last week.

She said it was up to Bangladeshi political parties to decide if they would participate in the elections or not.

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

“The United States is going to be supporting a pre-elections observation mission (in Bangladesh) in the coming months as Prime Minister Hasina welcomed election observers,” Akhter said.

Blinken’s statement also comes amid speculations 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.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen had earlier this week said there was no reason for the US to impose sanctions on Bangladesh afresh, but added it depended on Washington.

“We do not have any idea about new sanctions as it depends on the country (US) concerned, (but) it would be unfortunate if any new US sanction would be imposed,” he had said.

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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.

Akhter said Washington was pleased to see “a substantial decrease of extra judicial killings” after its sanction on RAB, but “we need to see long term systemic change for sanctions to be considered to be removed.”

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