In Senegal, opposition MP Ousmane Sonko was released on bail on Monday, March 9 amid political unrest that has gripped the West African country. At least eight people are reported to have died in clashes between the police and protesters last week.
Thousands of protesters, mostly youth, had taken to the streets in support of the 46-year-old opposition leader. Sonko rose to popularity in 2015 after revealing documents that allegedly exposed corruption in the ruling Alliance for the Republic and questioned Senegal’s economic relationship with its former colonizer, France.
Sonko was arrested on March 3 on charges of disturbing public order while he was going to court to respond to the charges of rape filed against him last month. The MP has denied the allegation and claimed that the charges were a political plot by president Macky Sall to prevent him from running for the next presidential election, for which he is seen as a strong candidate.
In the 2019 presidential election, Sonko had finished in the third place while Sall won his second term, which is the maximum permitted under the constitution. However, a constitutional review Sall launched in 2016 has led to widespread speculation that he is preparing to contest for a third term. Two of his main contenders in the 2019 election had been unable to challenge him in the presidential race due to criminal charges filed against them.
While Sonko was on the way to court on Wednesday, a large number of his supporters followed his motorcade and gathered along the route, shouting slogans and chanting songs. This led to his arrest on the separate charge of disturbing public order.
Clashes between the supporters and police started immediately and escalated into large protests over the following days. On Thursday, one death was reported amid clashes in Bignona town.
The headquarters of Le Soleil, a newspaper of French origin, and pro-government radio station RFM were attacked by the protesters. Students of Cheikh Anta Diop University clashed with the police, hurling concrete blocks as the latter fired tear gas and stun grenades.
In the meantime, two television channels covering the protests were suspended by the government for 72 hours on the accusation that they were provoking violence. Netblock reported that social media, including Facebook, WhatsApp and Youtube, were also restricted on Friday when the civil society and opposition parties had called for more protests.
On Friday, cars were torched and French-owned stores were targeted in some places. Demonstrations were also attacked by the police along with non-uniformed men in civilian clothes armed with clubs.
Amnesty International has called out the government for the arbitrary arrests, crackdown on press freedom, and other human rights abuses since Sonko’s arrest. Under these circumstances, the judge hearing Sonko’s case has recused himself.
On Saturday, the Movement for the Defence of Democracy, a coalition of the civil society and main opposition party Pastef which is headed by Sonko, called for three-day protests from Monday, asking people to “massively descend on the streets”. On Monday, supporters who had gathered outside the court cheered Sonko’s bail.
Popular frustration against the government, which is sitting on a poverty rate of 40% and rising inequality and unemployment, have fueled the protests triggered by Sonko’s arrest.
In the meantime, the massage parlor employee who had accused Sonko of rape has become the target of a vilification campaign as her photos are being widely circulated on WhatsApp.
While a number of political and economic factors have contributed to the protests, women’s rights activists have expressed concern that such developments may prejudice the complainant’s chances of a fair trial and prevent victims of sexual abuse from coming forward.
Until last year, the crime of rape held a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment and the conviction rate was low. In January 2020, as the #MeToo movement gained momentum, a new law extended the prison term for rape, which is now punishable with a minimum of 10 years to a maximum of lifetime imprisonment.