Fresh US Visa policy announced recently to be on the ‘red list’ of individuals with ruling and opposition parties, government officials, judiciaries, and media professionals would be tagged including their immediate family members responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process.
Those who will hinder holding free, fair, credible and inclusive elections the Swords of Damocles will fall upon that individual.
Over the last two years, the US has maintained pressure on Sheikh Hasina, the world’s longest-serving women Prime Minister, urging her to ensure a free and fair election in upcoming national polls expected in the first week of January 2024.
Since December 2021, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the top officials of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite police unit targeting crime and terrorism, which has been accused of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
Hasina at a press conference in May retorted why should her government be afraid of being sanctioned by foreign countries. “Why should we be sanctioned,” she lamented.
The visa policy has indeed made shivers run through the spines of the Awami League, ‘golden boys’ (pro-government delinquent students and youths], and civil and police administration.
While the critics, dissidents and ‘aam janata’ (mango people) of the regime are rejoicing, the visa policy seems to have cut across all tiers of the government and ruling parties.
Political analyst Badiul Alam Majumder said: “I see this restriction as a preventive measure. This could avert efforts by individuals to rig elections in their favour,” he told Reuters.
However, anguish and frustration were visible in the body language of the people in power.
Well, a few weeks ago, the ruling party leaders, members, activists, and cheerleaders among all professional bodies were excited and shared pleasant posts of the selfie photos of Sheikh Hasina and US President Joe Biden at the G-20 Summit in New Delhi.
The confidence of the sycophants and partisan government officials, including police and district administration further heightened after the news of Hasina attended a banquet reception hosted by Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
When the Bangladesh Prime Minister was in New York, her government in Dhaka was informed of the implementation of the visa policy by the US Administration.
Earlier, on 3 May the US Administration informed Bangladesh that it would announce a policy for restricting visas to those who would obstruct the democratic election process or be part of such action.
Then on 24 May US Secretary of State Antony Blinken formally announced the decision and said the “[visa] policy to lend our support to all those seeking to advance democracy in Bangladesh.”
On 22 September, the US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that the visa restrictions had started to be implemented on Bangladeshi individuals.
After the US announced its new visa policy, Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen hoped that the new visa policy would help Bangladesh hold free and fair elections.
The US State Department in a statement said that it was “heartened” that the Bangladesh government welcomed its decision to impose visa restrictions on those who undermine the democratic election process in Bangladesh.
In describing actions that impeded the election process, the US mentioned vote rigging, threatening voters, restoring to violence to obstruct people’s freedom to assemble and their right to hold peaceful gatherings, and other actions that prevented political parties, voters, the civil society or the news media from expressing their views.
In response, the Bangladesh foreign ministry issued a statement, “The government apparatus will take necessary measures to prevent and address any unlawful practices or interference … to compromise the smooth and participatory conduct of the elections.”
“The electoral process will remain under strict vigilance, including by international observers as accredited by the Election Commission,” the statement added.
Walla, overnight the hell has broken loose! The troll armies, digital mercenaries, and lie factories — weapons of the government in collaboration with recruits from Awami League and Chhatra League, both at home and abroad began to shred the US Visa policy.
The wolf warriors unleashed a smear campaign against the US Administration. Even the US Embassy in Dhaka and Ambassador Peter Haas were not spared.
The US Embassy and the Ambassador were showered with threatening messages. Former Justice Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik demanded the US Ambassador should be expelled from the country.
A ‘golden boy’ Siddique Nazmul Alam, former general secretary of Bangladesh Chhatra [Student] League (BCL) posted a status on his verified Facebook page: ‘We are seriously concerned about your actions and you have already crossed your limits in Bangladesh. Remember, this time is not 1975, it’s 2023.’
Investigative journalist in exile Zulkarnain Saer Sami tweets: Regrettably, recent events have witnessed the @USAmbBangladesh becoming the target of unjustified criticism from various groups and individuals with close ties to the Bangladeshi government. These individuals have resorted to the use of social media to abuse him [US Ambassador Peter Haas], [and] derogatory comments have been made about the ambassador on multiple television programs.
For the second time, US Ambassador Haas expressed fears for the physical security of his embassy staff and the embassy itself, said in an interview with a Channel 24 TV network on 23rd September.
Once the visa restriction begins to be implemented, besides the United States, the names of individuals and family members will be on the red list category by Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia, and New Zealand.
The red-listed individual possibly may only perform Hajj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia and pilgrimages to Ajmer in India – nowhere else to go, commented political historian and writer Mohiuddin Ahmad.
Recently, Dr Momen in a signed article published in a Bangladesh English press on 27 September 2023 writes: “Anchored in our shared values of democracy, human rights and rule of law, the relations between Bangladesh and the USA have evolved over the past 52 years into a robust partnership characterised as dynamic, multifaceted and forward-looking. Like in any matured relationship, we collaborate on areas where we have alignment in our views and agree to disagree where you don’t.”
The article deliberately avoided the diplomatic tension between Dhaka and Washington. The article does not mention a word about the much-debated visa policy, sanctions on RAB, etcetera, etcetera.
First published in the Northeast News, 29 September 2023
Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh. A media rights defender with the Reporters Without Borders (@RSF_inter). Recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at email@example.com; Twitter: @saleemsamad