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Senegal: Pre-Election Crackdown

Guarantee Fundamental Freedoms, End Arbitrary Detentions and Prosecutions

People protest the possibility that President Macky Sall could run for a third term in the presidential elections scheduled for February 2024 in Dakar, Senegal, on May 12, 2023. © AP Photo/Leo Correa
  • The authorities in Senegal have cracked down on the opposition, media, and civil society.
  • 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.
  • The authorities should effectively investigate all security force violence, release people arbitrarily detained, and guarantee the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

(Nairobi) – The authorities in Senegal have cracked down on the opposition, media, and civil society, ahead of general elections scheduled for February 25, 2024, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should effectively investigate all violence by the security forces, release people arbitrarily detained, including on politically motivated grounds, and guarantee the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, essential to genuinely free and fair elections.

A crackdown began in 2021 over court cases involving prominent opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and over concerns about whether President Macky Sall would run for a third term, but there has been a spate of arrests of political opposition figures and dissidents in recent months.

According to civil society groups and opposition parties, up to 1,000 opposition members and activists have been arrested across the country since March 2021. Seventy-nine people have submitted requests to the Constitutional Council to be presidential candidates, including Amadou Ba, Senegal's current prime minister and member of the ruling coalition, and Sonko, a jailed opposition leader and head of the dissolved political party African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics, and Fraternity (Patriotes africains du Sénégal pour le travail, l'éthique et la fraternité, PASTEF). Only 20 have survived the Council’s vetting process. Sonko’s candidacy was rejected on grounds that he was sentenced to 6 months in prison by the Senegalese supreme court for defamation against a minister. Sall is not running for a third term.

“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,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should ensure that all Senegalese are able to freely express their views and exercise their vote fairly and peacefully.”

Between November 2023 and January 2024, Human Rights Watch interviewed in person and by telephone 34 people, including 9 opposition party members, 13 members of Senegalese civil society groups, 6 journalists, 2 university professors, 3 Senegalese lawyers, and 3 relatives of activists. Human Rights Watch also reviewed reports by national and international media outlets, photographs showing one protester’s injuries as a result of torture in June 2023 and his medical records, and a video showing gendarmes torturing a protester, also in June.

On January 9, Human Rights Watch sent an email to Julien Ngane Ndour, director of the Justice Ministry’s Human Rights Division, sharing its findings and requesting responses to specific questions. Human Rights Watch did not receive a response. 

Waves of arrests started in 2021 following violent protests linked to court cases involving Sonko, and over the prospect that President Macky Sall might run for a third term. Security forces have targeted leaders, members, and supporters of Sonko’s party. Sonko was most recently arrested on July 28 on charges of fomenting insurrection, undermining state security, creating serious political unrest, and criminal association, among others. Bassirou Diomaye Faye, PASTEF’s secretary general, has been in detention since April 14, facing similar charges connected to a message criticizing magistrates he posted on his Facebook page.

“Criticizing officials is not a crime and no one should face prison time for doing so,” said Faye’s lawyer. On July 31, Senegal’s interior minister announced the dissolution of PASTEF on the grounds that it had allegedly rallied supporters during violent protests in June 2023 and March 2021.

“Our leadership is in jail, our supporters are in jail, many of us are on provisional release or are monitored electronically like me,” said El Malick Ndiaye, head of communications for PASTEF, arrested on March 22 for allegedly spreading false news and acts likely to jeopardize public security. That day, he published a message on his Facebook page alleging that an individual in police uniform sprayed Sonko with an unknown substance. “The government is trivializing the practice of arrest and doing everything to silence us,” he said.

The authorities have used the judicial system to target political opponents and dissidents. Lawyers representing those arrested in connection with opposition-led protests expressed concerns over the lack of respect for due process rights of their clients, including trumped up charges, lack of evidence to substantiate charges, prolonged pretrial detention, and ill-treatment and torture in detention or upon arrest.

“The prosecutor wrongly codifies the offense in order to request an arrest warrant and rejects any request for provisional release of detainees,” said Moussa Sarr, a prominent human rights lawyer who is representing pro bono hundreds of detained protestors. “So it happens that people who participate in an unauthorized demonstration are not being prosecuted for participating in an unauthorized demonstration, but for criminal association. The offense charged is no longer the legal consequence of the acts committed.”

Human Rights Watch has previously documented security forces’ use of excessive force, including live ammunition and improper use of tear gas, to disperse thousands of protesters across the country in March 2021 and June 2023. At least 37 people have been killed during violent clashes since March 2021 and there has been no accountability. “Young people died, and their families are yet to see any justice done,” said Alioune Tine, a prominent Senegalese human rights activist and founder of the research organization AfrikaJom. “The failure by our authorities to bring to book errant security officers will only encourage them to continue.”

The March 2021 violent protests led Senegalese authorities, citing the need to protect public security, to restrict freedom of assembly by prohibiting public gatherings, meetings, and protests. On December 29, 2023, local authorities in the capital, Dakar, banned a December 30 meeting at which Sonko was to be nominated to run for president, citing a threat to public order.

“For two years authorities have rejected almost all requests from civil society organizations and political parties to demonstrate,” said Moundiaye Cissé, executive director of the civil society organization 3D. “The right to freedom of assembly is a cornerstone of democracy, we fought for it, it cannot be taken away from us.”

Some candidates have said they were prevented from collecting signatures, which are required to place their name on the ballot. On October 28, Khalifa Sall, leader of the Taxawu party and a presidential candidate, said the police stopped his 30-vehicle convoy for several hours, preventing it from entering the Fatick region, southeast of Dakar, where he was supposed to collect signatures. The police said that the convoy had not been authorized.

“We did not need any authorization,” said Moussa Taille, Taxawu’s spokesperson. “The law provides for any candidate to collect his sponsorships. Ahead of the vote, the government is trying to restrict the rights of opponents.”

Journalists said that since 2021, they have experienced increased pressure from government agents and security forces while doing their work, as well as arbitrary arrests and intimidation. Dozens of journalists have been arbitrarily arrested, threatened verbally, and physically assaulted. Media outlets have been suspended and the authorities have imposed arbitrary restrictions to mobile internet access and social media.

In a January 8 statement, the European Union announced that, at the invitation of Senegalese authorities, it will deploy an electoral observation mission to Senegal on February 25.

International human rights law, including regional law such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, prohibits arbitrary detention. Any charges authorities bring must be provided for in law, cover activity that is legitimate to sanction, and be supported by credible evidence that fits the offense. Those detained have a right to be informed of the grounds for their arrest, to challenge their detention before an independent and impartial judge, not to be arbitrarily denied bail, to have access to a lawyer and family members, and to have their case periodically reviewed. International human rights law also guarantees the right to freedom of assembly and expression and prohibits excessive use of force by law enforcement officials as well as detention in inhumane and degrading conditions.

“As Senegal heads to the polls, the stakes for its democracy are high,” Allegrozzi said. “Senegalese authorities should initiate impartial, independent, and effective investigations into all cases of use of force by security forces throughout the pre-election crisis and ensure that security forces respect the right to demonstrate peacefully.”

For detailed accounts of the abuses and other details, please see below.

Due Process Violations

Senegalese authorities systematically violate the due process rights of those arrested in connection with opposition-led demonstrations.

Misuse of Preventive Detention, Denial of Bail

Unless a crime is in the act of commission or has just been committed (“flagrante delicto” in the civil law system), Senegalese law requires law enforcement to have a court-issued arrest warrant to detain a suspect. In practice, security forces treat most cases involving opponents as “flagrante delicto” offenses and arrest people without warrants. Those so arrested are entitled to be brought promptly before a judge, charged, and tried, with a maximum 96 hours of pre-charge detention allowed under Senegalese law. However, the prosecution and courts, in response to requests by the prosecution, systematically deny bail—provisional release—to political opponents and keep them in prolonged pretrial detention, in violation of international human rights law.

Sarr, the lawyer who represents numerous detained protesters, told Human Rights Watch: “The majority of my clients are arrested in flagrante delicto, but they are never tried according to the quicker flagrante delicto procedure, and the prosecutor’s office instead most of the times opens a judicial investigation,” thereby significantly extending the pretrial period. This penal policy appears to be based on the prosecutor’s willingness to send those arrested to pretrial detention. The prosecution also appears to justify its inclination to detain people as preventing the commission of future offenses. These preventive arrests and detentions are illegal and unacceptable in a state governed by the rule of law.”

Trumped-Up Charges and Wrong Codification of the Offense

Sarr and Ciré Clédor Ly, barristers who represent detained protesters, activists, and political opposition members, including Sonko, said the most common charges used against their clients are acts likely to jeopardize state security, calls for insurrection, spreading false news, conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, and defamation.

“I have clients who were charged with jeopardizing state security for wearing a PASTEF bracelet,” Ly said. “They just throw charges at you.” Since the charges involve state security crimes, provisional release is almost always rejected, the defense lawyers said.

The brother of Faye, PASTEF’s secretary general, said: “Bassirou was arrested at night, at his office, without any warrant. Gendarmes broke down the door of the building to take him. Since April [2023], his lawyers filed four requests for provisional release, and all have been rejected without explanation.”

A 26-year-old opposition party member told Human Rights Watch that he was arrested in Dakar on May 30, and charged with “acts likely to jeopardize state security” as he was going to a gendarmerie brigade to identify some detainees. “Is requesting information about detainees an act that can endanger the state?” he said. “These were just fabricated, politically motivated charges.”

The man was eventually granted provisional release on June 8, and left Senegal on October 24 out of fear of being re-arrested: “I travelled to Mali over land, then Ivory Coast, then I took a flight to Morocco, and Spain. In Madrid I took a flight to Managua [Nicaragua’s capital]. Then, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. And finally, I crossed into the United States.”

Lack of Adequate Access to Legal Counsel

Senegal’s criminal procedure code guarantees the right to legal counsel from the time of arrest and to have legal counsel present during interrogation. However, former detainees said that they were denied adequate access to legal counsel. Others said that they were not allowed to have lawyers present during interrogations, were denied the opportunity to review the evidence submitted against them, or were forced to sign statements against their will or statements obtained under torture.

A 28-year-old PASTEF member who was arrested on June 1, 2023, in Mbour, Thiès region, said:

On June 5, [2023] I was brought half naked, only with my shorts, before a police commissioner who interrogated me. While she questioned me, without my lawyer, a policeman hit me on my sides and shoulders with the wooden part of a knife. She asked me to sign a paper. I asked whether I could read it. She said no. I refused to sign it, but she threatened me and so I was forced to.

Thioro Diouf, known as Thioro Makhou Mandela, a journalist of the media group Walfadjri, was arrested on April 18 on criminal association charges, among others. She said:

I was six weeks pregnant when I was arrested, accused of crimes I never committed, on completely trumped-up charges. I was targeted because of my critical positions vis-à-vis the administration. […] They took me to a cell called “the cave,” the prison of the court in Dakar. There were 18 other women, no window, the heat was infernal, the smell of the toilet disgusting. I asked the guards whether I could talk to my lawyer. They refused. In the afternoon, they allowed my lawyer to talk to me but from far. I could not even hear what he was saying.

Detention Conditions

According to World Prison Brief, an online database providing information on prison systems around the world, the capacity of Senegalese prisons is about 7,300, but the number of detainees, both pretrial and post-conviction, was more than 13,000 in September 2023.

Former detainees and their relatives described to Human Rights Watch extremely overcrowded cells with inhumane conditions. In Dakar’s Rebeuss detention center, where pretrial detainees are held, detainees share every square meter of space, often unable to sit or lie down. Built in 1929 with capacity for 600 detainees, Rebeuss currently holds more than 3,000 pretrial detainees, over 700 of whom were arrested in connection with opposition-led demonstrations.

“Our cell was so full that we did what we called ‘packaging,’ sleeping on our sides, stacked one beside the other, head-to-feet, until the ground surface of the cell was fully filled,” a former Rebeuss detainee said. “Some detainees had to push us to fit.”

“We were 103 in the cell,” said Thioro Mandela Diouf, who spent 15 days at the women’s prison called Camp Penal in Dakar. “There was not enough space and we had to sleep head to foot. We had no proper sleeping material and for a pregnant woman like me, it was very challenging.”

Hygiene and access to medical care are limited. Former detainees and their families complained of acute shortages of water, soap, and other sanitary supplies, as well as medicines in Rebeuss. “Some cells do not have internal toilet facilities so if you need to urinate, you use a bucket,” said a former detainee. “There is only one infirmary and all they have is Paracetamol,” a medicine used to treat fever and moderate pain.

In October, there was a scabies outbreak in Rebeuss linked to unsanitary prison conditions.

International law prohibits detention conditions that amount to inhumane or degrading treatment, a threshold that the overcrowding and lack of adequate basic services and dignity for detainees in Senegal’s pretrial detention facilities reaches, Human Rights Watch said.

International human rights law, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, provides that anyone facing charges should be released prior to trial, except for exceptional circumstances set out in law. The sheer number of those in pretrial detention in Senegal, despite the lack of space and prison conditions, is itself evidence of abuse of pretrial detention authority. Those in pretrial detention should urgently be granted bail or provisional release, unless there are exceptional circumstances provided for in the law that justify continued detention. Those facing continued detention should be brought to trial promptly, and all politically motivated charges should be dropped.

Torture in Detention

The 28-year-old PASTEF member who was arrested on June 1 in Mbour, Thiès region, during a pro-opposition protest, described his treatment:

A gendarme grabbed me from behind, 10 more gendarmes came and pushed me on the ground. One hit me with the bottom of his gun on my right temple, another kicked me with his boots on my right eye. They all beat me […]. Then, one said: ‘We are in the street, we could be seen, let’s take him to the brigade.’ They took me to the brigade, a building under construction. […] A lieutenant there said: ‘We are going to kill you today.’ […] They threw me face down on the floor, which was full of sand and cement, and hit my buttocks with wooden sticks, iron bars, electric cables, and truncheons for about one hour. Then, a female lieutenant poured water on me. […] When they were done, they put me in a police pick-up truck parked outside the brigade and surrounded by policemen. They said to the policemen: ‘Now, you can take your part.’

Several policemen beat the man in the police truck.

A policeman took a metal bucket and told me to wear it like a cap, which I did, and then he took a stick and tapped over the bucket, and it made a high-pitched sound. […] Another policeman came with a knife […] and told me: ‘I will cut off your toes,’ but another said: ‘Guys, stop!’ and he gave me some water to drink. But then another policeman came and ordered me to do push-ups. When I got into the push-up position, he took a plastic bag wrapper and put it around my neck, and every time I got up for the push-ups he pulled and choked me.

A 28-year-old man and PASTEF member, arrested by gendarmes in Mbour, Thiès region, at a pro-opposition protest, on June 1, 2003, shows the serious injuries, including a broken finger, that he sustained after being tortured for several hours. © Private, Mbour, Thiès region, Senegal, June 2023

The man was detained for three days at the police station in Mbour and denied any medical care despite having very serious injuries. On June 4, he was taken to Mbour regional hospital for treatment, but doctors refused to give him any medical records. On June 9, he was taken before the prosecutor and transferred to Mbour prison. He was granted provisional release on June 23.

On June 2, at about 11 p.m., Pape Abdoulaye Touré, a young political activist, was attacked by men he did not know in Dakar’s Liberté 6 neighborhood. During the assault, the victim said he saw two gendarmes patrolling the area and called for help. Gendarmes took him to the local brigade, and when they found a photograph of Sonko as background of his telephone, they started beating him.

Human Rights Watch spoke to Touré’s lawyer and one of Touré’s friends and reviewed a 01:12-minute video showing Touré handcuffed, bleeding from his nose, and surrounded by at least five men wearing the uniforms of the Senegalese gendarmerie. In the video, gendarmes can be heard insulting and threatening Touré in Wolof, a language widely spoken in Senegal with phrases such as “you are a rat” and “let’s break his legs.”

“He was savagely beaten by the gendarmes while in detention,” his lawyer said. “He suffered injuries, including a broken arm and a broken leg.”

Charged with “acts likely to jeopardize public safety” and “insurrection,” Touré started a 22-day hunger strike in November to protest his detention. Since December 4, he has been held at the Special Pavilion of Le Dantec hospital in Dakar because of his deteriorating health. A friend who visited him there in late December said:

He is physically and mentally very weak. He still suffers from the tortures he was inflicted. He told me that he was beaten everywhere in his body, that he was kicked, slapped, hit with the gendarmes’ boots on his head, eyes, and neck. He told me that the gendarmes poured water and sand on him.

Crackdown on Media

Arrests of Journalists and Social Media Activists

On May 16, security forces arrested journalist Ndèye Maty Niang, also known as Maty Sarr Niang, at her home in Dakar and charged her with various offenses, including “calling for insurrection, violence, hatred,” following her posts on Facebook criticizing the Senegalese authorities. She remains in prison in Dakar. “Her lawyer filed two requests for provisional release, but both were rejected,” Niang’s mother said. “She is suffering in prison; she is in a cell with 62 other detainees. She is psychologically exhausted and now I take care of her three children.”

On July 29, police arrested Pape Alé Niang, the editor of the news site Dakarmatin, on charges of “insurrection” at his home in Dakar, following comments he made in a live broadcast on his Facebook page about Sonko’s arrest on July 28, 2023. He was provisionally released after a 10-day hunger strike. This was the third time security forces arrested Niang since November 2022.

Social media and television activist Pape Ibrahima Guèye, alias “Papito Kara,” 32, who was close to PASTEF and vocal in criticizing the government of Macky Sall, was arrested in Dakar in July 2022 for “spreading false news.” He had become very popular for his comical news reviews on social media and television. He was released under judicial supervision in January 2023, “but feared being arrested again, and so he decided to leave,” his brother said. According to his brother, he died on October 27, trying to reach the Canary Islands on a boat. “Someone who was in the boat with him and made it to Spain told me that he died … because of the cold and that they threw his body in the sea.”

On November 13, gendarmes arrested Pape Sane, a journalist at the Walfadjri press group, on false news accusations. “I was held in custody for eight days, the first four days at the gendarmerie section in Colobane, and then at the central police station, before being granted provisional release,” he said. Sane is charged with "spreading false news" via a Facebook post, a repost of a 2021 article about General Augustin Tine, former commander of the National Gendarmerie, who had been relieved of his duties following the March 2021 protests in which several demonstrators died.


Journalists said they have been reluctant to criticize the government to avoid being labeled political opponents and targeted. “We are being extremely careful, we know we can end up in jail if we write something that the government dislikes,” said a newspaper journalist. “My boss constantly tells me to be careful about what I put in my articles.”

“In the past two years we observed a pattern of growing intimidation and targeted attacks against independent journalists and media, as a result of which journalists increasingly practice self-censorship,” said Ibrahima Lissa Faye, director of the online media platform “When journalists censor their own thoughts, media freedom is threatened.”

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