Senegal opposition leader held in custody after clashes

AFP , Friday 5 Mar 2021

Hefty police deployments were in place around the law courts, presidential palace and National Assembly in the heart of the Senegalese capital

Supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who was arrested following sexual assault accusations, clash with security forces in Dakar, Senegal, March 5, 2021. REUTERS

Senegal opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was ordered held in custody at a court hearing on Friday, two days after his arrest sparked the country's worst violence in years.

Burned-out cars littered some of Dakar's streets and key buildings were blanketed in security before his hearing, following unrest in a country long deemed West Africa's beacon of stability.

Hefty police deployments were in place around the law courts, presidential palace and National Assembly in the heart of the Senegalese capital.

"Sonko has been returned to custody over the matter of disturbing public order," attorney Etienne Ndione told reporters.

Supporters of Sonko, a former presidential candidate who is seen as a key challenger to President Macky Sall, had called for fresh protests to coincide with a hearing.

The United Nations' special envoy for West Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, appealed for calm, urging authorities "to take the necessary measures to ease tensions" and guarantee the constitutional right to peaceful protest.

Clashes broke out on Wednesday between Sonko's supporters and police as he made his way to court to face rape accusations against him -- allegations that he denies.

Sonko was then arrested on charges of disturbing public order, a development that sparked angry protests in the capital and other cities.

The custody order issued on Friday, which relates specifically to the public order case, expires on Sunday.

He was not charged on Friday in the rape case and returns to court on Monday for questioning over those accusations, his lawyers said.

Sonko is being targeted "for attempted elimination of a political rival," said Abdoulaye Tall, another of his attorneys.

Violence in south

One person died in the southern town of Bignona on Thursday, the police said, during clashes there.

A local official in Yeumbeul in the Dakar suburbs said that a second person there had died, and social media said the individual was a teenager.

Protesters attacked the offices of the government daily Le Soleil and RFM radio station, which belongs to a press group owned by singer and former minister Youssou Ndour. Both media outlets are deemed pro-government.

Stores of a French supermarket chain were also attacked and French schools in Dakar were closed on Friday.

Popular firebrand

Sonko, a 46-year-old devout Muslim who is leader of the opposition Pastef party, is popular with many young Senegalese because of his sharp-tongued attacks on the elite, especially President Sall.

He came in third to Sall in the 2019 elections.

But his political future was suddenly clouded last month when rape charges were filed against him by an employee at a salon where, he said, he went to receive back massages.

He denies the accusations and accuses Sall of conspiring to sideline him from politics.

The government late Thursday hit out at "acts of violence, looting and destruction" of property and warned it would take "all necessary measures to maintain public order."

It also warned "certain media" against pursuing what it called "tendentious" coverage of events.

The regulatory authorities suspended two local television channels, Sen TV and Walf TV, for 72 hours, accusing them of relentlessly broadcasting images of the unrest.

In a statement, Amnesty International called on the Senegalese authorities "to immediately halt arbitrary arrests of opponents and activists, respect freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression."

It also urged the authorities to "shed light on the presence of men armed with clubs next to the security forces."

Netblocks, an organisation that monitors disruption to the Internet, said social media and messaging applications, including Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp, had been affected by restrictions.


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