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Detained demonstrators on a police pick up during a protest against the postponement of the February 25, 2024 presidential election, in Dakar, Senegal, on  February 9, 2024. © REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

(Nairobi) – A draft amnesty law submitted by Senegal’s President Macky Sall to members of the National Assembly on March 4, 2024, opens the door to impunity for serious crimes, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 26, amid a political crisis caused by the postponement of presidential elections, and as a way of reconciling the country, President Sall announced a general amnesty law for acts relating to the political protests held between 2021 and 2024. On February 28, Senegal’s cabinet approved the draft law. The law is to be submitted to a vote by deputies in a plenary session in the coming days.

“The bill, if passed, could effectively grant impunity to officials responsible for serious human rights abuses,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Any amnesty that entrenches impunity by absolving government and security force officials’ responsibility for serious human rights violations is incompatible with Senegal’s national and international obligations.”

The draft text states that the amnesty pertains to “all acts that may be classified as a criminal or correctional offense committed between February 1, 2021, and February 25, 2024, both in Senegal and abroad, relating to demonstrations or having political motivations, including those made by any communication media, whether or not the perpetrators have been tried.”

Human Rights Watch has previously documented Senegalese security forces’ excessive use of force, including live ammunition and improper use of tear gas, to disperse protesters in March 2021, June 2023, and February 2024. At least 40 people have been killed during violent clashes since March 2021, with no accountability. According to the opposition and civil society groups, up to 1,000 opposition members, including party leaders and presidential candidates, journalists, and activists were arrested across the country between March 2021 and January 2023. Since the announcement of the postponement of elections, at least 344 of them have been released, according to Aïssata Tall Sall, Senegal’s justice minister.

Human Rights Watch has also documented the lack of respect for due process rights of people arrested in connection with opposition-led demonstrations since 2021, including trumped up charges, lack of evidence to substantiate charges, prolonged pretrial detention, and ill-treatment and torture in detention or upon arrest.

“There is strong evidence indicating that the overwhelming majority of those arrested in connection with opposition-led demonstrations were arrested arbitrarily, and that the charges against them were politically motivated, so ending legal proceedings against those people is a positive step,” a Senegalese human rights lawyer, Moussa Sarr, told Human Rights Watch. “However, granting a blanket amnesty including to some members of the defense and security forces who have been credibly accused of deadly violence during protests is a betrayal of the victims and undermines their access to justice.”

The draft amnesty law has been met with criticism from both the opposition and civil society groups. Several victims of the violence since 2021 also expressed serious concerns to Human Rights Watch that the law might hinder their chances to establish responsibility for the violence they suffered. “I am deeply disappointed at this draft law,” said a 28-year-old opposition party member who was arrested on June 1, 2023, in Mbour, Thiès region. “It is an attempt to whitewash the crimes committed by security forces, including torture, of which I have sadly been a victim.”

The draft amnesty law comes as Senegal faces a major political crisis following the announcement by President Sall of the postponement of presidential elections scheduled for February 25. The move, which was denounced as a “constitutional coup d'etat” by the opposition and civil society groups, sparked deadly violence across the country.

On February 6, Senegal’s parliament voted to delay presidential elections to December 15 after a chaotic National Assembly session during which security forces removed opposition lawmakers. On February 15, Senegal’s Constitutional Council overturned the delay and called for the vote to be organized “as soon as possible.” Sall then announced a “national dialogue,” which the opposition rejected, and demanded that the election be held before June 2. Senegalese have been waiting since then for a new election date. Sall’s mandate officially ends on April 2.

Major international treaties to which Senegal is a party – including the Convention against Torture and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – provide that those allegedly responsible for serious crimes must be fairly prosecuted. An amnesty for serious crimes would also be contrary to the founding principles of the African Union and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

“President Sall said that the amnesty will be granted in the spirit of national reconciliation,” Allegrozzi said. “But attempts at a general reconciliation should not be a means to evade accountability.”

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