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Bangladesh Foreign Minister responds to US visa curbs, vows free elections

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Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister, AK Abdul Momen, addressed the United States’ imposition of visa restrictions on unnamed officials from Dhaka, emphasizing that his country remains unperturbed by these measures. The visa curbs were implemented by the US in response to concerns over the integrity of Bangladesh’s upcoming general elections, slated for early next year.

Momen expressed confidence in Bangladesh’s ability to conduct credible elections, noting, “The US is a democracy, so are we.” This sentiment aligns with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s assertion that her government possesses the capacity to ensure free and fair elections.

The US Department of State had previously announced visa restrictions on individuals deemed responsible for undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh. While specific names were not disclosed due to confidentiality laws, the State Department indicated that these individuals could be associated with law enforcement, the ruling party, or the political opposition, with potential repercussions for their immediate family members’ eligibility for entry into the United States.

The US government’s stance on promoting “free, fair, and peaceful national elections” in Bangladesh had been conveyed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken several months prior. Despite assurances from the Bangladeshi foreign ministry at that time, concerns persisted, particularly regarding the government’s treatment of political opposition figures and activists.

Notably, the last two national elections in Bangladesh, held in 2014 and 2018, faced allegations of vote rigging and opposition boycotts. In both instances, the Awami League (AL) led by Prime Minister Hasina emerged victorious, while denying claims of electoral manipulation.

The US State Department warned that additional individuals found complicit in undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh might also face visa ineligibility in the future.

Foreign Minister Momen downplayed the impact of these visa sanctions, suggesting that most of his party members and voters had little interest in traveling to the US. He emphasized their focus on the progress and prosperity of Bangladesh.

Tensions surrounding the upcoming national elections, scheduled for January, have escalated, with the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and its allies staging regular street protests. Their demand for a neutral caretaker government to oversee the elections is rooted in the nullification of this provision by the Supreme Court in 2011, a move the opposition claims was influenced by the ruling Awami League.

Western powers, including the US and the European Union, have expressed concerns about the electoral process and human rights issues in Bangladesh. Experts view the recent visa restrictions as a reflection of these concerns, with the potential for further targeted sanctions in the future.

In response, former Bangladesh Ambassador to the US, Humayun Kabir, suggested that these sanctions aim to ensure a free and fair election and are a result of careful deliberation by the US government.

Geopolitical analyst Shafquat Rabbee, based in the US, argued that the US has taken a determined stance regarding Bangladesh’s elections, aiming to preserve democracy in the country through less invasive means like targeted sanctions.

Rabbee further speculated that the US could impose additional targeted sanctions, potentially targeting Bangladesh’s business community and judiciary if democratic backsliding continues.

Opposition parties have welcomed the US’s actions, citing alleged misuse of state resources in previous elections. In contrast, the ruling Awami League remains unfazed, expressing trust in the electoral process and the will of the Bangladeshi people to decide their nation’s fate through the ballot box.

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