US visa curbs on those who will bar fair polls

Blinken announces new policy for Bangladesh to ‘promote’ free polls
US visa policy

The US will 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".

In a statement yesterday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, "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."

The US notified the Bangladesh government of this decision on May 3.

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

Blinken further said actions that undermine the democratic election process 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 US State Department said these visa restrictions are not directed against the government or the Awami League.

"The United States does not support any particular political party. Restrictions under this new policy target individuals engaging in behavior that undermines the democratic election process, regardless of affiliation."

In an immediate reaction, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Md Shahriar Alam said the Bangladesh government "does not bother" about the US government's new visa policy, as the authorities are "committed" to holding a free and fair election.

"It's not a sanction. The BNP should be worried as violence before or during the election is another criterion that will trigger visa restrictions," he told UNB.

He said they will issue an official reaction today once they know the details of the new policy.

The US policy under Section 212(a)(3)(C) ("3C") of the Immigration and Nationality Act comes 18 months after Washington imposed sanctions on Rab and seven of its current and former officials for human rights violations.

The US has been critical of the last two national elections. In 2021, it did not invite Bangladesh to the democracy summit to promote the Biden administration's foreign policy priorities, democracy and human rights.

In recent months, Peter Haas, the American ambassador to Bangladesh, has been calling for free and fair elections. On different occasions, he said his country does not support any particular political party, and what would be the make-up of the polls-time government is the internal affairs of Bangladesh.

Blinken said the US is committed to building a strong partnership with the Bangladesh government. "We welcome the prime minister's expressed commitment to holding free and fair elections."

Ali Riaz, distinguished professor of the department of politics and government at the Illinois State University, said the US move seems to have much greater implications than the targeted sanctions.

"Any individual in or outside the government, including the bureaucracy, judiciary, media, Election Commission, law enforcement can come under this policy and face punishment," he said over the phone early today.

"It is a message to everybody that they need to get their acts right."

Riaz said it is also a message that the US would not hesitate to impose sanctions against individuals or groups and it means that the US is watching the situation in Bangladesh closely.

Riaz said that in the last one year or so, eight top-level US officials visited Bangladesh and passed the same message to the government that they want free and fair elections. It could have avoided such an action from the US.

"The new policy is not applicable only for the election day. The election process has already started and the behaviours of everybody is being watched," he said.

US-Bangladesh ties are very important and over the decades the US has been extending significant support to Bangladesh. That's why the US wants Bangladesh to be on the right track. One needs to understand clearly that this policy is not against anyone but for Bangladesh and its people.

Asked if there is any geopolitics behind such an action, Riaz said, "In today's world, there is nothing beyond global politics."