Senegal: Human Rights Watch Warns of Senegal Repression Ahead of Elections

Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday denounced Senegalese authorities for repressing opposition leaders, media and civil society, in a report published only five weeks before the West African nation holds its presidential election.

HRW highlighted numerous concerns in its report, mostly concerning the lack of press freedom, repression against the opposition and arbitrary detention, including on politically motivated grounds.

“President Macky Sall’s promise to hold free and fair elections is at odds with the reality that the authorities have been filling prisons for the last three years with hundreds of political opponents,” the report said.

“The authorities should effectively investigate all security force violence, release people arbitrarily detained, and guarantee the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.”

Authorities in #Senegal have cracked down on the opposition, media, and civil society ahead of the presidential election, embarking the country on a worrying and slippery authoritarian route. For more on that see @HRW‘s latest report👇https://t.co/JoVezbMN7K pic.twitter.com/hOxcNuhuR5— ilaria allegrozzi (@ilariallegro) January 22, 2024

The report comes just a few days after Senegal’s Constitutional Council published a final list of 20 candidates for the presidential election, which excluded jailed opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and Karim Wade, the son of former president Abdoulaye Wade.

Three years of increased repression

“The crackdown has been ongoing since 2021,” Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch, told RFI.

Court cases involved prominent opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and there has been a spate of arrests of political opposition figures and dissidents in recent months, she adds.

According to civil society groups and opposition parties, up to 1,000 opposition members and activists have been arrested across the country since March 2021.

“The authorities should ensure that all Senegalese are able to freely express their views and exercise their vote fairly and peacefully,” the report states.

Sall said the 25 February elections would be organised “in peace and stability and respect for republican and democratic principles”.

He announced in July that he would not seek a third term, choosing his Prime Minister, Amadou Ba, as his successor.

“Even though President Sall is not running again, authorities have continued with the crackdown, and the crisis only seems to be accelerating as the election nears,” HRW wrote.

Allegrozzi recognises that the fact that Sall is not running, and that 20 candidates are in the race is reassuring. But for opponents and journalists, the crackdown is real.

“Democracy in Senegal hasn’t been destroyed, but it’s been challenged,” she insists.

“We’re calling for the release of all the political activists and candidates that have been arrested, including Sonko,” Allegrozzi told RFI.

“The authorities should not use justice cases to disqualify a candidate or another,” she says.

“It’s a dark time for freedom and democracy.”Senegalese authorities have been targeting journalists, opposition leaders, and activists ahead of presidential elections on February 25, 2024. pic.twitter.com/9Y9UDSNIed— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) January 22, 2024

Excessive force and impunity

HRW also accused the security forces of resorting to “excessive force”, including use of live ammunition and improper use of tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters across the country in March 2021 and June 2023.

It said at least 37 people had been killed during violent clashes since March 2021 with no accountability.

HRW compiled its report after interviewing 34 people, including opposition party members and members of civil society groups, journalists, lawyers and university professors, between November 2023 and January 2024.

It also reviewed reports by national and international media, including photographs of a protester’s injuries in June 2023 and a video showing gendarmes torturing a protester the same month.

“Young people died, and their families are yet to see any justice done,” according to Alioune Tine, a prominent Senegalese human rights activist and founder of the research organisation AfrikaJom, who contributed to HRW’s research.

Government’s denial

HRW demands that the Senegalese government guarantee fundamental freedoms and end arbitrary detentions and prosecutions.

The group added it had sent its findings to the justice ministry and requested a response, but had not received one.

As HRW released its report, Senegalese Justice Minister Aissata Tall Sall was in Geneva, insisting that “all political freedoms and freedoms of expression are recognised” in her country.

“It is a source of concern that the government denies the crackdown and the impunity,” Allegrozzi concludes, “people died in these acts of crackdown and there’s no justice.”

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