In a major move, the US State Department announced a new visa policy on Wednesday night aimed at imposing visa restrictions against any Bangladeshi individual believed to be "responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh".
The US Embassy in Bangladesh said that the family members of such individuals would also be affected by the restrictions.
In response to the announcement, the Bangladesh government issued a press note on Thursday, asserting its commitment to holding free and fair elections. The government highlighted that it would take necessary measures to prevent and address any unlawful practices or interference by individuals, groups, or entities that could compromise the smooth and participatory conduct of the elections.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken disclosed the new visa policy, stating, "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."
"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 added.
The secretary of state specified that this policy would apply to current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, as well as members of law enforcement, the judiciary and security services.
Mr Blinken revealed that the United States had notified the Bangladeshi government of this decision on May 3, 2023.
Actions that undermine the democratic election process, as outlined by the secretary of state, include vote rigging, voter intimidation, the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, as well as 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. I am announcing this policy to lend our support to all those seeking to advance democracy in Bangladesh," he concluded.
In an instant reaction to the decision, Bangladesh's State Minister for Foreign Affairs M Shahriar Alam said the US government's decision does not bother Bangladesh, as the government is committed to holding a free, fair and credible election.
He also pointed out that the opposition BNP should be worried about such a policy, as they often resort to violence to undermine the polls.
Commenting on the development, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has termed the new American visa policy towards Bangladesh 'conducive' to holding a free and fair election in the country.
BNP Standing Committee member Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury said the new visa policy of the United States was a good initiative to hold free and credible polls in Bangladesh. The former minister came up with the remarks in reply to a media query about the visa issue at the party chairperson's Gulshan office on Thursday.
"There is a sense of fear and concern regarding the upcoming elections. The US has taken the new visa policy for preventing vote rigging in the upcoming elections," cited Mr Khasru.
While responding to whether the policy targets the present government or the Awami League, the US Embassy in Dhaka clarified that it does not support any particular party. Therefore, the policy aims at all individuals who may impede and undermine the process of holding a free and fair election.
The US Embassy further mentioned that no visa restrictions have been imposed on any individuals under this policy so far.
Meanwhile, US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu said, "I know this new policy will create questions in Bangladesh. Let me emphasise that we have taken this policy in the most constructive and positive way."
He also noted that this is not imposing sanctions on anybody, but rather it is a new visa policy that will equally apply to members of both the ruling and opposition parties.
However, questions have been raised about whether other US allies, such as the EU and Canada, will adopt a similar policy.
Former Ambassador Humayun Kabir commented on the issue, suggesting that these countries may not take the same action immediately. They might prefer to monitor the situation and, if they find that the circumstances remain unchanged, they may consider implementing similar restrictions.
Meanwhile, in a press note issued on Thursday regarding the 'US Visa Rest-riction Announcement', the government said that it had taken note of the announcement made by the US secretary of state regarding a visa restriction policy based on the 3C provision under the US Immigration and Nationality 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, adding that under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's leadership, Bangladesh remains a democratic and politically stable nation with experience of holding a series of elections at national and local levels.
"Since the general elections in 2008, it is evident that the people of the country experienced unprecedented socio-economic development and empowerment due to the continued political stability under the Awami League government," the press note added.
It highlighted the significant reduction in headcount poverty from 41.5 per cent in 2006 to 18.7 per cent in 2022 and extreme poverty from 25.1 per cent to 5.6 per cent during the same period.
The press note mentioned that Bangladesh has now become an international role model for development, being eligible for graduation from the UN Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2026.
It underlined that these achievements had been made possible due to the Awami League government being elected to office for three consecutive terms over the past fourteen years.
"The people of Bangladesh are highly aware of their democratic and voting rights. There is no precedent for any government to remain in power by usurping the people's mandate through vote rigging," the note continued.
It underscored that the people's right to vote is considered sacred by the Awami League government, which has a political legacy of unwavering struggles and sacrifices to secure that right.
The government also places great importance on freedom of assembly and association for all peaceful and legitimate democratic processes.
"The electoral reform process in Bangladesh continues in a consultative manner involving all concerned stakeholders. As part of the process, photo-based voter ID cards were issued in response to the 10.23 million fraudulent voters enlisted by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led government. The use of transparent ballot boxes has also become the norm to establish confidence among the electorate, as well as the polling officials and agents."
The National Election Commission continues to be equipped with the necessary resources to carry out its functions with complete independence, credibility and efficiency.
For the first time, the present government initiated the enactment of the Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners Appointment Act, 2022, through the National Parliament.
Following this law, a new Election Commission has been constituted. As mandated by the Bangladesh Constitution and the Representation of the People Order, 1972, the entire executive machinery will remain at the disposal of the Election Commission to assist in the discharge of its responsibilities as directed.
The electoral process will be closely monitored, including by international observers accredited by the Election Commission.
"The government expects that local undemocratic forces that resort to violence, arson, and destruction will exercise caution and refrain from misguided efforts to jeopardise the electoral process, as mandated by the Constitution."
"It is entirely up to the people of Bangladesh to sustain the hard-earned democratic process, political stability and development gains in the country."
The government appreciates the firm support of the international community, including the US, for Prime Minister's sustained commitment to ensuring free and fair elections, it said.
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