Tags: Senegal opposition leader Sonko protests police Sall

Protesters in Senegal Accuse Police of Using Armed Civilians to Quell Unrest

Protesters in Senegal Accuse Police of Using Armed Civilians to Quell Unrest

Friday, 16 June 2023 12:04 PM EDT

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — As gunfire rang out at a protest in Senegal’s capital, a man wearing khaki pants and a T-shirt shot Cheikh's childhood friend in the chest. The bleeding 21-year-old slumped against a wall, displaying his wound in disbelief.

“We thought tear gas and grenades would be used against us. We had no idea they would shoot,” said Cheikh, who was inches away when the bullet struck his friend and rushed him to the hospital in an unsuccessful attempt to save his life. “As I watched him on the way there, I realized it was over.”

His friend, Khadim Ba, was one of at least 23 people killed earlier this month in Senegal during the country's deadliest clashes between police and protesters in decades, according to Amnesty International. Like Ba, several people were reported shot with live ammunition by men wearing civilian clothes who appeared to be fighting alongside the police, according to protesters and rights groups.

Such “nervis,” a French word for “thugs” that is used in Senegal to refer to gunmen for hire who are deployed to shut down protests, are allegedly responsible for numerous deaths during the days of clashes between supporters of political opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and police.

An autopsy report seen by The Associated Press states Ba died from “firearm thoracic trauma” that started in the front of his body and pierced his heart and lungs. He was shot and killed on June 1, the same day Sonko was convicted of “corrupting youth” and given a two-year prison sentence.

Sonko's supporters maintain the conviction was the latest episode in a long-running effort by the government of President Macky Sall to derail the opposition leader's candidacy in the 2024 presidential election. Under Senegalese law, a criminal conviction could bar Sonko from running.

Cheikh told the AP that he and other friends recognized Ba's alleged killer as someone who was close with a local well-known wrestler. During an interview at the Dakar home of his late friend's parents, he recalled seeing the man shooting people with a pistol while standing in front of riot police.

The AP cannot independently verify Cheikh's account and is not using his last name because he fears reprisals for speaking to the media. But video images on social media sites show non-uniformed men holding guns and standing alongside the police during the series of demonstrations.

Men believed to be part of the recruited “nervis” also were spotted outside the ruling party’s headquarters in Dakar, Amnesty International researcher Ousmane Diallo told the AP.

A person working for a different civil society organization said he saw young men armed with rifles and dressed as civilians board a half-dozen pickup trucks near the ruling party headquarters the day after Sonko's conviction. When they left, the trucks tailed the vehicles of security forces, said the organization worker, who was not authorized to speak to the media about the witnessed activity.

Senegal's government denies armed civilians collaborated with police. Interior Minister Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome said this week that authorities opened an investigation into the scenes depicted in the videos circulating on social media to "determine responsibility for the deaths and the looting of property.”

During pro-Sonko demonstrations in May and this month, some participants destroyed shops, gas stations, and cars and buses lining the streets, and barricaded roads and lit tires on fire. The damage cost the country millions of dollars, according to the government, which said the protesters posed a threat to democracy.

Government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana said some young Senegalese people organized themselves into neighborhood watch committees to “defend their physical integrity and protect their property.” The scene outside the party headquarters was the ruling party’s private security service, which was deployed to protect the premises, Fofana said.

Human rights organizations have accused security forces of making arbitrary arrests and using excessive force, including employing guns to quell the protests.

Under international law, law enforcement agencies should only use firearms in exceptional circumstances, such as an imminent risk of serious injury or death, according to Samira Daoud, Amnesty International’s regional director for West and Central Africa.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Seif Magango said this week that the decision by the country's security forces to use live bullet rounds “sets a negative precedent for Senegal.” Conflict analysts warn that mobilizing and arming civilians to reinforce the ranks of police is an even more dangerous strategy.

“It’s unclear if those men are professional and well-trained personnel to counter (violent protests), and therefore there is a high risk of them behaving recklessly and doing more harm than containing the protests,” Rida Lyammouri, a senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think tank, said.

Sonko, who currently serves as mayor of his hometown of Ziguinchor and is popular with the country's youth, placed third in Senegal’s 2019 presidential election.

Two years later, he was accused of raping a woman who worked at a massage parlor and making death threats against her. At least 14 people were killed during clashes after authorities arrested Sonko for disturbing public order on his way to a court hearing.

Large-scale unrest resumed this year during the rape trial and escalated after Sonko was acquitted of rape but convicted of a lesser charge of corrupting youth. Under Senegalese law, the conviction could bar him from running for president.

Sonko, who didn’t attend his trial in Dakar and was judged in absentia, has not been seen or heard from since the verdict. Security forces surround his house in the capital, which is where Sonko is thought to still be.

At the heart of the unrest are fears that Sall, Senegal's president, will run for a third term. The constitution limits presidents to two five-year terms, but Sall says he can legally seek reelection. The argument would be based on deciding that a constitutional reform adopted in 2016 allows him to reset the clock on his term count.

The mediation of religious leaders helped calm the situation in recent days, though protests could resurface and spark more unrest if Sonko is imprisoned or Sall announces his candidacy in next year's presidential election.

Sall has called for an investigation into those responsible for this month's demonstrations and praised the “remarkable professionalism” of the security forces in controling the violence, government spokesman Fofana said in a statement.

Meanwhile, families are reeling from the damage already done.

“If I had known (he was going to protest), Khadim would never have taken part,” Ba's mother, Seynabou Diop, said. “I want (the government) to meet the expectations of young people. The government has an obligation to help,” she said.


Follow AP's coverage of Africa at https://apnews.com/hub/africa

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

- As gunfire rang out at a protest in Senegal's capital, a man wearing khaki pants and a T-shirt shot Cheikh's childhood friend in the chest. The bleeding 21-year-old slumped against a wall, displaying his wound in disbelief. "We thought tear gas and grenades would be used...
Senegal opposition leader Sonko protests police Sall
Friday, 16 June 2023 12:04 PM
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