Human Rights Watch Raises Concern on Senegal Vote

(Bloomberg) -- A US-based human-rights watchdog has cast doubt over Senegalese authorities’ pledge to hold free and fair elections next month amid a crackdown on dissent and the targeting of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko’s supporters.

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Hundreds of opposition figures, journalists and civil society members have been arrested across the country since 2021, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Monday, citing opposition parties and civil society groups.

“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,” Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at HRW, said.

The spate of arrests began in 2021 after concerns grew that Sall might run for a third term and Sonko’s detention on accusations of rape led to violent protests, HRW said. It estimates that since March 2021 at least 37 people have been killed during violent clashes for which it said there’s been no accountability.

Abdou Karim Fofana, a government spokesman, refuted the report’s claims saying Senegalese democracy is a reality contrary to what the HRW tries to make people believe.

The report fails to address the opposition’s role in the protests, he said in a text message in response to questions.

“There are no political prisoners,” Fofana said. “People have been arrested for calling for insurrection” and investigations into the protests are ongoing, he said.

Sonko, seen as the main challenger to Sall’s chosen successor Prime Minister Amadou Ba, was acquitted on the rape charges last year, but found guilty of engaging in misconduct with a youth. In July, he was accused of fomenting an insurrection because of the protests and is currently in prison awaiting trial.

Last week, the Constitutional Council disqualified the firebrand politician from the presidential race citing the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this month to uphold his six-month suspended prison sentence for accusing Tourism Minister Mame Mbaye Niang of embezzlement.

His supporters believe authorities have targeted Sonko to prevent him from contesting the elections. The 49-year-old former tax inspector has said the charges are politically motivated.

The government has denied the claim and prohibited public gatherings for security reasons. Sall has ruled out running for a third term.

Sonko’s exclusion from the vote may incite further popular unrest in a country that data from the International Monetary Fund shows is poised to be one of the world’s fastest-growing economies this year as it readies to become an oil and gas producer.

Sonko previously said he is backing Bassirou Faye, the secretary general of his now-dissolved Pastef party, who was retained on the list of final candidates that can run for office next month.

Faye, who was arrested in April, is also in prison and faces several criminal charges including one connected to a message criticizing magistrates posted on his Facebook page.

(Updates with the death toll from clashes in paragraph four. An earlier version removed reference to the number of dead in paragraph seven.)

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