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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘The state killed my brother’: Senegal in uproar after deadly protests

A funeral on Friday on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, for Bassirou Sarr, a tailor who was killed during clashes between demonstrators and security forces.

By Elian Peltier

A tailor shot in the head. A baker killed by a bullet in the chest. A geography student planning to continue his studies in Canada felled by a deadly bullet in the back.

The West African nation of Senegal is reeling after clashes between police and supporters of a leading opposition figure early this month left at least 16 people dead. Many families have found that their loved ones had died from gunshot wounds, raising suspicions that the Senegalese police fired on demonstrators.

Senegal is often hailed as a model of stability in West Africa, but for years anger has been mounting against President Macky Sall and his government over widespread youth unemployment and perceptions of entrenched corruption. Sall has also remained vague about his intentions to run for a third term next year, which most legal experts say would violate the Senegalese Constitution.

Sall has praised the professionalism of the country’s security forces, while his interior minister, blaming a “foreign influence” for the riots, has said the death toll could have been much worse had police not shown restraint.

Yet a different picture is painted by social media footage, testimonies from relatives of victims and human rights defenders, and half a dozen death certificates obtained by The New York Times. The certificates all list the cause of death as wounds inflicted by live ammunition.

The source of the bullets is not mentioned on the death certificates. But Amnesty International, which has counted 23 fatalities, said most of the victims died from bullets fired by police or unidentified armed men operating alongside them. The Senegalese Red Cross said it had treated more than 350 people, 10% of whom were among the security forces.

“The state killed my brother,” said Issa Sarr, whose brother died June 2 after being shot in the head in Pikine, a suburb of the capital, Dakar. His brother, Bassirou Sarr, 31, was a tailor who invested his spare time in his neighborhood, painting, planting trees and installing lighting to make the area safer, his relatives said.

The government has rejected accusations that police fired at protesters and said it had arrested 500 people, some carrying firearms. The Interior Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of various Senegalese cities earlier this month after the country’s leading opposition figure, Ousmane Sonko, was sentenced to two years in prison for “corrupting youth.” He was acquitted of rape and other charges, all which he had denied.

Sonko’s supporters, and an increasing number of public intellectuals and political observers, say the case was an attempt to block him from running in next year’s presidential election.

As news of the verdict against Sonko spread, protesters set cars ablaze, threw stones at security forces and ransacked properties and businesses. Dakar’s central university, one of the best in West Africa, remains closed until further notice after rioters burned several buildings.

The Senegalese government deployed the military to respond to the protests. It also cut off access to social media for nearly a week.

Many families say that the young men they lost had not even participated in the protests. Bassirou Sarr had been forced to close his shop because of the protests, like most businesses, and was shot as he was standing on a bridge overlooking rioters who were cornering police officers at a tollgate, his brother Issa Sarr said in an interview last week. His account could not be verified independently.

Issa Sarr spoke as he was waiting to collect his brother’s body at a morgue in Dakar. Minutes later, another family loaded the coffin of a man killed in the demonstrations on the roof of a hearse. Sarr and two of his brothers gathered around the coffin with two dozen others and prayed for the victim, Seyni Coly, a baker who died after being shot in the abdomen, according to his autopsy report.

Families of other victims shared similar stories. Elhadji Cissé, a 25-year-old geography student who was about to move to Canada this summer for his studies, was returning from a mosque, his family said, when he was shot in the back. The bullet punctured his right lung and came out of his arm, according to an autopsy report.

With three-quarters of Senegal’s population younger than 35, most of its 17 million people have known only democracy. Even as Senegal has faced sporadic episodes of political violence since it gained independence from France in 1960, it has long taken pride in its culture of free expression and the existence of multiple political parties — in a region where coups are common and aging leaders cling to power.

But that exceptionalism has come under question as the country faces its worst political crisis in decades. In recent years, demonstrations against Sall have grown more violent, political opponents have been jailed, journalists arrested and news organizations suspended.

In 2021, Sonko’s arrest, following accusations of rape by an employee of a massage parlor, set off demonstrations and left 14 people dead over six days. But the police response was more violent this year, according to human rights organizations.

Amnesty International has called for an independent investigation.

Sonko, who was convicted on June 1, has yet to be arrested. Stranded in his house in Dakar, he has not condemned the violence, instead calling for more unrest. More than half a dozen protesters hospitalized after being wounded in the protests and interviewed by the Times last week said they would keep demonstrating against Sall’s government. (Sall was elected in 2012 after defeating an incumbent who had rankled many in Senegal by attempting to claim a third term.)

“I don’t regret anything,” said Samba, a 23-year-old demonstrator who was discharged from a hospital in Dakar this past week after being shot in the chest. He asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of government retaliation.

“Injustice in this country must stop,” he added, referring to the prosecution of Sonko.

But the strife has also alienated more moderate Senegalese who favor dialogue, observers say.

“Political parties, in power and in the opposition, are rarely insisting on the fact that violence isn’t the solution or that institutions should be respected,” said Guillaume Soto-Mayor, a Dakar-based researcher with the Middle East Institute. “Those same institutions, most recently the justice system, and their leaders have lost credibility.”

As hospitals discharged their wounded, families buried their loved ones in Ziguinchor, a city in southern Senegal where Sonko is the mayor, and in Dakar and its suburbs.

The body of Bassirou Sarr, the tailor, was released by authorities Thursday, six days after he died. As relatives and acquaintances lined up Friday in a narrow alley outside a mosque, the imam urged young mourners to think twice before acting.

“Your parents need you alive, not dead,” he said.

Saly Sarr, one of Bassirou Sarr’s aunts, said she had had time while waiting for his body to be released to reflect on Senegal’s future.

“What happens if our children grow up in a country where the police shoot at their own people with real bullets?” she asked earlier at the family house. “They’ll just create more insurgents.”

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