(Nairobi) – Senegalese authorities should immediately ensure an independent and credible investigation into the violence during protests in the capital, Dakar, and across the country since May 31, 2023, Human Rights Watch said today. At least 16 deaths have been reported, including two members of the security forces, and injuries of scores of others. The government should unconditionally release all those held for peacefully expressing their political views or for exercising their right to freedom of assembly and end arbitrary bans on access to the internet and social media.
Demonstrations broke out in Dakar on May 31 after a criminal court sentenced prominent opposition leader Ousmane Sonko – head of the political party Patriotes africains du Sénégal pour le travail, l’éthique et la fraternité (Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics, and Fraternity, PASTEF) – to two years in jail for corrupting youth, undermining his chances to run in next year’s presidential election. On June 4, Minister of the Interior Antoine Diome said that the violence led to 16 deaths and 500 arrests across Senegal. In a June 4 statement, PASTEF said that security forces and “militias” killed 19 people and that Senegalese people should “defend themselves by all means and to fight back.”
“The recent deaths and injuries of protesters set a worrying tone for the 2024 presidential elections and should be thoroughly investigated, with those responsible held accountable,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should end the repression against protesters and critics, and guarantee freedom of assembly.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 19 people, including three protesters, three civil society activists, four members of the opposition, five journalists, and two lawyers. Human Rights Watch also reviewed reports by national and international media outlets, eight photographs and eight videos showing the dead and injured, and images of the protests.
Witnesses said demonstrators in Dakar built barricades, blocked main roads, burned tires, destroyed and looted public and private property, and threw stones at the police, who responded with teargas. “The police fired so many teargas grenades that I couldn’t breathe,” said a journalist who covered the events in Dakar’s Parcelles Assainies neighborhood on June 1. “I saw dozens of protesters looting a supermarket.” Elsewhere in the country, including Ziguinchor and Mbour, clashes also broke out between protesters and security forces. On June 2, the army was deployed to strengthen security in Dakar, but clashes continued on June 3.
Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm the use of live ammunitions during the protests but spoke to a witness who saw the body of 21-year-old Khadim Ba who, he said, had been allegedly shot in the chest by a gunman dressed in civilian clothes in Dakar’s Pikine neighborhood in the afternoon of June 1. “We took the body to the Dominique health center in Pikine for an autopsy because we saw a clear bullet wound in the chest,” the witness said. “Medical staff refused to do it and told us they first needed a police report … We went to the police.… they made a report, so we can now get an autopsy.” Senegalese media also reported on the death of Khadim Ba.
Various other witnesses reported the presence of “thugs” among the security forces. “These thugs ride cars without plates and act with impunity under the protection of security forces,” said a journalist who covered the protests. The opposition has accused the authorities of using armed civilians along with the security forces during protests. The media also reported similar accounts during previous demonstrations.
According to lawyers and the opposition, since May 30, in and around Dakar only, security forces arrested at least 250 people, including women and children – mostly PASTEF members and supporters, but also civil society activists – and beat some of them. “I represent 30 among those arrested in Dakar region,” a lawyer told Human Rights Watch. “I have been able to meet with them and I noticed that some had visible injuries due to the beatings they suffered at the hand of the police.”
On June 1, in Richard Toll, northern Senegal, security forces arrested 40 people, including one woman and at least seven children as young as 11 after a demonstration in support of Sonko, a lawyer representing the arrested said. A PASTEF member who assisted the woman, who was arrested and taken to the hospital after the police severely beat her, said: “Policemen stopped [the victim] and told her: ‘We know you; you are a PASTEF leader’ and they beat her brutally.”
A lawyer representing the woman said she suffered serious injuries to the hands and legs and was given an 18-day prognosis for recovery by doctors. He also said that she was threatened with rape. Human Rights Watch reviewed four photographs showing the victim at the hospital and her injuries. According to the lawyer, all 40 people remain detained at the Richard Toll police station, “in difficult conditions, packed in a cell with many people.”
The latest demonstrations occurred amid general unrest in Senegal. Violent protests linked to President Macky Sall’s silence on whether he would run for a third term in office and the court case involving Sonko have erupted across the country since 2021. Excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests by the security forces during protests have been common since 2021, and there has been no accountability for those abuses. “It’s regrettable and inconceivable that in a state under the rule of law no one has been held accountable for the deaths of dozens of protesters since 2021,” said a lawyer representing some of those arrested since June 1.
Alioune Tine, a prominent Senegalese human rights activist and founder of the research organization AfrikaJom, told Human Rights Watch: “Never before since the sixties have there been so many political prisoners in Senegal.”
Over the past several months, the authorities have cracked down on the opposition, media, and dissent. Security forces have arbitrarily arrested and detained journalists and protesters and banned demonstrations organized by the political opposition.
During the latest protests in Dakar, security forces intimidated journalists and prevented them from covering unfolding events. “A policeman stopped me, I showed my press card,” said a journalist who approached Dakar’s university area to report on clashes between students and the police on June 1. “He replied: ‘I don’t care about the press’ and didn’t let me pass.” On May 29, gendarmes stopped a team of three journalists working for Senegalese online media Senegal7, “seized our telephones and cameras, and prevented us from filming PASTEF protesters who had gathered in Dakar’s Sacré-Cœur neighborhood,” said one of the journalists.
On June 1, Senegal’s interior minister announced restrictions on social media to stop the “dissemination of hate and subversive messages.” On June 4, the government extended the outage to mobile internet access. Those restrictions prevented journalists, human rights activists, and other people from communicating, getting information, or reporting on unfolding events, Human Rights Watch said.
In response to the protests, on June 2, the spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional bloc, condemned the violence, and said that all parties should exercise restraint. On the same day, Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission, urged respect for the rights of freedom of expression and assembly.
International human rights law and the Senegalese Constitution protect the right to freedom of assembly and expression and prohibit the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials. The Guidelines for the Policing of Assemblies by Law Enforcement Officials in Africa provide that law enforcement officials may use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and that the intentional use of lethal force is permitted only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. It also provides that the military should only be used to police assemblies “in exceptional circumstances and only if absolutely necessary.”
The African Union Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa require internet-based restrictions to be both necessary and proportionate and states that governments should not interfere with anyone’s freedom of opinion.
“The Senegalese authorities should end the arbitrary arrests, release those wrongfully held, including children, and respect the rights of Senegalese people to peacefully demonstrate and protest,” said Kaneza Nantulya. “The African Union and ECOWAS should use their influence to press Senegalese authorities to end their repression of protests and critics.”