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By BenarNews staff on May 24, 2023
The United States announced on Wednesday that, starting immediately, it would deny visas to Bangladeshis whom it believes undermine democratic elections in the South Asian nation.
The policy is intended to send a message to the citizens of Bangladesh that Washington is closely watching the run-up to the upcoming national polls, U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told a daily press briefing here.
The Biden administration announced the new policy after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern to Dhaka last month about threats and physical attacks against members of the Bangladeshi media, including under a draconian digital law, ahead of the next general election.
In a statement on Wednesday, Blinken said that the new visa policy under the Immigration and Nationality Act aims to support “Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair and peaceful national elections,” which are scheduled to be held in December 2023 or January 2024.
Washington informed Dhaka about the new visa policy on May 3, America’s top diplomat said.
“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,” Blinken said in a statement.
“This includes current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary, and security services.”
Bilateral relations have been tense since Washington in December 2021 declared sanctions on an elite security force, Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, over concerns about its alleged involvement in human rights abuses.
Bangladesh has been governed since 2009 by Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party, which secured three consecutive election wins, including one boycotted by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies in 2014, and one widely criticized as rigged in 2018.
“We have not yet applied the policy to anyone,” a State Department spokesperson said in response to follow-up questions emailed by BenarNews, adding that “this policy is forward looking.”
In Dhaka, BenarNews reached out late Wednesday to Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal to ask him about the new U.S. visa policy on Bangladesh.
“Yes, we heard the news,” he said. “Our government’s position on the U.S. visa policy will be cleared by our Foreign Ministry very soon.”
Meanwhile, Donald Lu, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, was interviewed on a Bangladesh television channel about the new policy.
Lu gave the policy a positive spin.
“I have to emphasize … we take this decision in the most constructive and positive way,” he said, praising Bangladesh as “a country very special to us.”
‘We are paying attention’
During the press briefing at the State Department, a reporter asked spokesman Miller whether the new visa policy was to be seen as a criticism of the Hasina government, or a sign that Washington expected the vote to be rigged.
He replied that it was none of those things.
“It is a signal on our part that we support free, fair and peaceful elections in Bangladesh and we have the ability to hold anyone accountable who hinders free and fair elections,” he replied.
“It is a signal to all members of [Bangladesh] society, as I mentioned – the military, security forces, the judiciary – that we have this ability and we are paying attention.”
Miller also said that the State Department believed “there was importance in sending a signal to the people of Bangladesh that we back free and fair elections.”
He was also asked whether the State Department would make public the names of people whose visa would be refused. Miller said that information would stay confidential.
“But the point is signaling to anyone who may be considering actions that would interfere with the abilities of Bangladeshi people to make their voices heard that we are watching, and [we] think it’s an important step,” Miller said, referring to the new policy.
Blinken’s statement said that the State Department named a variety of actions that it considers as undermining the democratic election process.
They include: vote rigging; voter intimidation; the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedoms 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 holding of free and fair elections is the responsibility of everyone – voters, political parties, the government, the security forces, civil society, and the media,” Blinken said.
“I am announcing this policy to lend our support to all those seeking to advance democracy in Bangladesh.”
The Hasina government has had an uneasy relationship with the U.S. lately.
Last month, Bangladesh’s PM railed against Washington in parliament, alleging the U.S. was working to bring an undemocratic party to power in her country through the upcoming polls. She also accused the U.S. of supporting corrupt people in Bangladesh.
Significantly, during a six-day visit to Washington earlier this month, Hasina did not meet with any U.S. government officials – a reflection, one observer said, of tensions between the two nations lately.
Hasina’s visit was also marred by several street protests against her regime. Demonstrators brought together by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party accused her government of mismanaging the economy and muzzling criticism.
They also referred to her as an autocrat.
The BNP has said it will not participate in the next election until its demands are met. Its main demand is for a caretaker government to be installed during election and post-poll period, a past practice seen as having resulted in relatively more free and credible balloting.
Hasina’s Awami League government had repealed the provision about caretaker governments from the constitution in 2011.