Freedom of expression: The mass prison, graveyard that Senegal has become

Since March 2021 when Senegal’s opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was accused of raping a masseuse, the build-up to his eventual conviction for corruption on June 1, 2023, has been punctuated with arrests and deaths. Thus far, at least nine people have died from ongoing political unrest while some 700 have been arrested or imprisoned.

But these are just the highlights; behind the statistics, a worrying trend of arrestees and casualties being either members of Sonko’s political party, PASTEF-Les Patriotes, or sympathizers of same, draws out at closer observation. In what can be described as a systematic depletion of the top brass of PASTEF-Les Patriotes through arrests and detentions, the party’s National Secretary, Secretary General, Second Ranking Member and Communication Officer, among others, have been imprisoned.

Other persons who have not been spared arrests and detentions in connection to the Sonko case are religious leaders, Civil Society actors and individuals who have gone out to criticize the Macky Sall government over its iron-fisted handling of the Sonko case.

Given that Sonko, who came third in Senegal’s election in 2019 is leading in pre-election polls for the 2024 elections, there is natural suspicion that the Macky Sall government is carrying out an agenda to take out Sonko and his party from the 2024 polls.

In Senegal, there is genuine fear that the government will likely disqualify Sonko from running in the 2024 polls.

These fears, may or may not be farfetched but ultimately, the way the government is going about knuckling Sonko, his party members and even independent voices who speak out against its highhandedness, is having a negative net effect on the civic space. Many people have been arrested and detained simply for expressing opinions on social media, while at least one person is being prosecuted for raising funds for PASTEF.

A report produced by the Media Foundation for West Africa points out the rising death toll from the political upheaval has styled Senegal into a sort of open graveyard while the arrests and detentions have metaphorized it into a prison.

Meanwhile, in all its punitive responses, the government has mostly done so by brandishing Senegal’s problematic criminal defamation laws. This fact, all the more, makes it dutiful for a clarion call to be made to Mr. Macky Sall and his government to cease the persecutions. This report does just that; it demands that all those arrested and detained for criminal defamation be released immediately.

It also calls on the government to end all liberticidal activities and restore the civic space to the free, open and tolerant one that it ought to be.

Read the full report here.

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