Bangladesh turns 50 as rights groups cry foul

Bangladesh's economy has boomed in recent years, with GDP per head more than quadrupling since 2000
Bangladesh's economy has boomed in recent years, with GDP per head more than quadrupling since 2000 Munir Uz zaman AFP/File
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Dhaka (AFP)

Bangladesh marked 50 years of independence from Pakistan on Friday as rights groups issued a joint plea for the country's economic success to be matched by an end to growing political repression.

The former East Pakistan emerged as a new nation in 1971 after a brutal war involving India marked by horrific abuses that Bangladesh says killed as many as three million and displaced many more.

For decades the nation was ravaged by famines, coups and natural disasters but in recent years under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has boomed economically with GDP per head more than quadrupling since 2000.

But under Hasina, 73, daughter of Bangladesh's murdered "founding father" Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and premier since 2009, the human rights situation has deteriorated sharply, activists say.

Hasina's main political opposition has been crippled with its chief and her arch-rival Khaleda Zia jailed for corruption and thousands of its activists arrested, some of them never to be seen again.

Authorities are clamping down on criticism, particularly online, with "digital security" legislation that rights groups say is used to arrest hundreds of journalists, activists and others.

"The Bangladesh government should not be enabled to use this celebratory moment to lay the groundwork for another 50 years of rights violations, or to hide its abuses by presenting itself on the world stage at variance with how it acts against its own citizens," a joint statement by nine rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, said.

Over the last decade there have been hundreds of enforced disappearances and thousands of extrajudicial killings by security forces including the notorious paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the statement said.

Hasina's government had planned a year-long programme of events to mark her father's birth centenary and the golden jubilee of independence, but most festivals were suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, and despite Covid-19 case numbers rising in recent weeks, Dhaka has held 10 days of celebrations culminating on Friday for Independence Day in the presence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other regional leaders.

"Let's forget all divisions and get inspired by the spirit of the liberation war to build Bangladesh as a developed and secular Sonar (Golden) Bangla as envisioned by the Father of the nation," Hasina said in an address broadcast live on television and on social media Thursday evening.

She called on the country's 168 million people to "take a fresh vow" to take Bangladesh to new heights as she charted a blueprint to make it a "developed nation" by 2041.