Ever since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina returned to the country from her 3-nation trip that took in Japan, the USA and the UK earlier this month, the rumours had been swirling - strangely enough, originating in government quarters this time - of new US sanctions on the way for government officials, in a further cranking up of pressure by the Biden administration in this election year. A government-friendly vernacular daily even published a report based on "unconfirmed sources" that the sanctions would target politicians in addition to government officials this time.

In the end, it wasn't new sanctions, but something far more bespoke and specifically designed targeting the upcoming 12 parliamentary elections, in the form of a pre-emptive visa policy. Putting an end to all the speculation and rumours, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced via Twitter on Wednesday (May 24):

"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 his statement. The United States has said the country is not imposing any new sanctions on Bangladesh but announced a new visa policy to promote free and fair 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 added.

This includes current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of the ruling or opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, and security services, according to the announcement also available at the US Department of State website.

It later emerged the United States notified the Bangladesh government of such a decision on May 3, 2023 - while the prime minister in Washington. It went a long way, in the eyes of observers, towards explaining some of the prime minister's comments in the intervening period, that came off as particularly acidic towards the US.

"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," Blinken said.

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, he said.

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

State Minister for Foreign Affairs Md Shahriar Alam said on Wednesday that the new visa policy announced by the US government "does not bother" the government of Bangladesh as authorities are "committed" to holding a free and fair election.

"It's not a sanction. BNP should be worried as violence before or during election is another criterion that will trigger visa restriction," he told our sister newsagency UNB in a quick response when his reaction was sought.

The State Minister said they will give an official reaction in detail once they know details about the policy the next day.

In that, the government of Bangladesh has said it expects that the local undemocratic forces that resort to violence, arson and destruction would remain cautious and refrain from their 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, said the government in the statement.

"The government appreciates that the international community including the US firmly stands by Prime Minister's sustained commitment to ensure free and fair elections," said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday (May 25, 2023) while responding to the new visa policy announced by the US government.

The government apparatus will take necessary measures to prevent and address any unlawful practices or interference by any individual, group or entity to compromise the smooth and participatory conduct of the elections, MoFA said.

The electoral process will remain under strict vigilance, including by international observers as accredited by the Election Commission, it said.

The government of Bangladesh has taken note of the announcement made by the US Secretary of State on a visa restriction policy pursuant to provision 3C under the US Immigration 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," MoFA said.

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, said the government.

Since the general elections in 2008, it is evident that the people of the country experienced unprecedented socio-economic development and empowerment due to continued political stability under the Awami League government. This resulted in the reduction of headcount poverty from 41.5% in 2006 to 18.7% in 2022, and of extreme poverty from 25.1% to 5.6% during the same period.

Now an "international role model" for development, Bangladesh has become eligible for graduation from the UN Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2026. These have been achieved due to the Awami League government being elected to office for three consecutive terms over the last fourteen years. The people of Bangladesh are very much conscious of their democratic and voting rights, MoFA said.

There is no precedent in Bangladesh of any government continuing in office having usurped people's mandate through vote rigging, 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. The electoral reform process in Bangladesh continues in a consultative manner involving all concerned stakeholders, MoFA said.

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 been made 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 wherewithal to carry out its functions in full independence, credibility and efficiency, MoFA said.

The present government took the initiative for the first time to get the Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners Appointment Act, 2022 enacted by the National Parliament. Pursuant to this law, a new Election Commission has been constituted. As mandated by the Bangladesh Constitution and Representation of the People Order, 1972, the entire executive machinery will remain at the Election Commission's disposal to assist in the discharge of its responsibilities in a way as it may direct, MoFA said.

US officials explain

US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu clarified that his government did not impose any sanctions on anybody in its Wednesday announcement - rather they have announced a new visa policy.

While responding to a question on Channel I's Tritio Matra, a popular political talkshow in Bangladesh, Lu said this policy will apply equally to the members of the ruling and opposition parties.

"I want to give you my promise that this policy will be carried out in a way that is fair and constructive, and will be carried out equally toward opposition and government," he said.

The US government never takes sides in elections, said the US Assistant Secretary.

"We do not support a particular party or a particular candidate. The only thing the US government supports is a free and fair democratic process," he said.

Lu, who toured the country in January, said they know this new policy will create questions in Bangladesh.

"I know this policy will create questions. I just have to emphasise again that we take this decision in the most constructive and positive way. We want this to contribute to the dialogue in Bangladesh and efforts by everyone - government, opposition, civil society - to create the environment for a free and fair election in the year ahead," he said.

Lu said this could be members of the government, judiciary, law enforcement, or it could be members of the opposition. He said the defence of democracy is both necessary and essential for Bangladesh to continue to move forward as a leader in South Asia and around the world.

Responding to a question, Lu said immediate family members, meaning spouses and children, are subject to these same visa restrictions.

"For anyone that we would revoke a visa for, we would inform them immediately," he said.

"The Secretary of State has announced a policy and we have not yet applied the policy to any specific individuals," Lu said.

The policy allows them to restrict travel to the US for anyone who has committed abuses in one of four areas: voter intimidation, vote rigging, denial of free speech or freedom of assembly, and violence that seeks to undermine free and fair elections, he said.

These restrictions, Lu said, would apply both to those giving orders and those taking orders. "For those who are those who are taking orders and who carry out acts of violence, or voter intimidation, or vote rigging, they would be ineligible for a US visa."

At the same time those who are giving orders, those individuals, would not be allowed to travel to the United States either, Lu said.

Asked whether the announcement was in retaliation for the government of Bangladesh's decision to withdraw additional police escort, Lu said, "It is absolutely not. I personally was involved with providing advanced notice about this policy to the Bangladeshi government on May 3rd. So there's no way our decision and our announcement on May 3rd could be retaliation for a decision taken by a government later on May 14th."

He said the US government has not, and will not, take decisions based on retaliation.

Lu said this is a forward-looking policy, meaning that their hope is that this policy will help to prevent violence and promote a free and fair election this coming year in Bangladesh. "We take that responsibility very seriously and we don't plan to look backwards."

"The United States consider ourselves a friend of Bangladesh. We want this policy to be used to support the efforts of your Prime Minister, her government, the Bangladeshi civil society, and the Bangladeshi people to have a free and fair election in a country which is just so important to the United States."

He said Bangladesh is a country that is very special to them.

"We have wonderful people to people ties between families and between institutions like universities and our companies," Lu said.

For them, he said, the promotion of democracy around the world is a central tenet of the Biden-Harris administration and they believe Bangladesh is a true democracy that deserves to have free and fair elections.

"This could be difficult times for Bangladesh, or this could be that this election ushers in a really joyous age in which Bangladesh can celebrate all of its accomplishments, both economic, but also political accomplishments, by making an election that is better than all the elections before it. That's our hope," Lu said.

Embassy weighs in

The United States Embassy in Dhaka indicated their new Bangladesh-specific visa policy will help Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government in its efforts to hold free and fair elections.

"Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government have committed to supporting free and fair elections in Bangladesh. This policy is designed to support these efforts and the Bangladeshi people, so they may hold elections to choose their leaders," it said in a message to journalists just after the new policy was announced. The United States said they support free and fair elections everywhere.

The message also contained a set of FAQs with responses, through which it clarified certain points that may likely arise in people's minds.

To start with, the US Embassy said this policy applies to any individual responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh. This includes current or former Bangladeshi officials, government supporters, and opposition members, among others. This would also include the immediate family members of such persons.

The United States said they are committed to building a strong partnership with the government of Bangladesh grounded in democracy and human rights.

"We welcome the Prime Minister's expressed commitment to holding free and fair elections," said the US Embassy.

The United States emphasised it does not support any particular political party, and that their handling of this policy would not favour anyone over another - except on the grounds of undermining electoral democracy.

"Restrictions under this new policy target individuals engaging in behaviour that undermines the democratic election process, regardless of affiliation."

It also assured that it is a general practice to notify individuals whose visas are revoked or cancelled.

Given "close cooperation" with the government of Bangladesh, the US informed it of this policy decision on May 3.

"I think what we will say is Prime Minister Hasina has committed to supporting free and fair elections. We share her support for free and fair elections," said US Department of State Spokesperson Matthew Miller.

He made the remarks when a questioner wanted to know whether the US is urging for a neutral caretaker government to hold a free, fair election during the State Department's daily briefing.

Earlier, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the next general election in Bangladesh will be held in a free and fair manner under her government upholding democracy and voting rights of the people.

The US State Department Spokesperson said the policy that they announced is designed to support those efforts by the Prime Minister, as well as the efforts of the Bangladeshi people to having elections where the Bangladeshi people can choose their leaders.

"And I will say lastly, as friends, we have expressed our concerns where we see actions that undermine democracy and human rights in Bangladesh," said the spokesperson.

Making comments on US State Department Spokesperson's remarks, Dhaka University Prof Delwar Hossain said remarks appear that the US has "full confidence" in the commitment of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh in ensuring free and fair elections.

"As a long practising democracy, the US knows it well that the issue of neutral caretaker government is not the main factor. US elections are held under the incumbent administration," he told UNB.

The government and other stakeholders can work together towards holding free and fair elections in Bangladesh, said Prof Delwar who teaches international relations. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) reiterated the call for holding parliamentary elections under a neutral caretaker administration.

Policy supports democratic electoral process: Ambassador Haas

US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas on Thursday said the newly announced visa policy was "merely their way of helping" to support democratic electoral process in Bangladesh.

He made the remarks while talking to reporters at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after a meeting with Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen.

Ambassador Haas said they have discussed the new visa policy, among other issues, noting that this is something they have done in support of Bangladeshi people, Bangladesh government and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself and everyone here in Bangladesh who support a free and fair election.

He said the meeting with FM Momen was part of the regular series of meetings that they have. "We talked about US-Bangladesh relations, our growing relationship across a whole number of areas."

Earlier, the US ambassador met the representatives of the major political parties and discussed the new US visa policy.

Representatives of the Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and Jatiya Party were present.

"We support free and fair elections. The new visa policy to restrict visas to those who undermine the democratic process applies to everyone," said Ambassador Haas.

Additional reporting by AKM Moinuddin

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