Senegal’s newly freed opponents ready to resume the fightFri, 23 Feb 2024 07:36:45 GMT

After more than six months behind bars, 34-year-old Mohamed Sy has just been granted his freedom — one of hundreds of detained opposition members and activists suddenly released after weeks of political upheaval in Senegal.Much to his surprise, Sy’s friends, family and neighbours have welcomed him home as a hero.”People congratulate me or offer me money, whereas usually when you get out of prison you’re stigmatised, it’s crazy,” said the electrician, who was detained in the capital Dakar. He believes the unusual wave of compassion is linked to the cause he was arrested defending, and what he describes as the arbitrary nature of his detention.Sy added that his will to fight for his political ideas had been strengthened as a result. He says his arrest at the beginning of August was because he held up a photo of opposition figure Ousmane Sonko, who himself had just been arrested. AFP was unable to verify this.Anti-establishment figure Sonko has won a passionate following with his pan-Africanist and socialist views and tough stance on former colonial power France. He was jailed in July on charges including calling for insurrection.Senegal has released a total of 344 detainees in the past week and more than 200 other cases are under review.Rights organisations say nearly 1,000 opposition members and activists have been arrested throughout the country since March 2021.”It was a test and we passed it with flying colours,” said another former detainee Yoro Ndao.”Being imprisoned is the lesser evil in this fight. We’re even prepared to give our lives so that the project (of dissolved opposition party Pastef) can succeed, if need be,” he added. – ‘Pacify public sphere’ -Justice Minister Aissata Tall Sall has denied the provisional releases were motivated by political reasons, saying they were to relieve prison overcrowding.She also said the releases were in response to a request from President Macky Sall to “pacify the public sphere” following Senegal’s worst political crisis in decades.The traditionally stable West African nation was plunged into turmoil after Sall announced a delay to the February 25 presidential vote just hours before official campaigning was due to begin.Parliament then backed the move and set a new election date for mid-December.The violent protests that followed left four people dead. Last week, the top constitutional body ruled the postponement was unlawful and called for the president — whose mandate officially runs out on April 2 — to organise the vote “as soon as possible”.- ‘Jailmen’ -Like many prisoners, Sy says he was released with no explanation.”I was already in bed when the guards came and told me to ‘take your bags, you’re leaving’ without another word,” he said.Sy has not received a trial after being charged with “acts likely to compromise state security”.The offence is one of the most common brought against the opposition in Senegal, along with calls for insurrection, spreading fake news, plotting to commit terrorist acts and defamation.Several detainees interviewed by AFP maintained their innocence and said they had not been taking part in protests when they were arrested and, some said, roughed up. Outside Dakar’s Rebeuss prison, relatives, friends and curious onlookers waited for the release of more opposition members.Sy and his fellow “jailmen” as they affectionately call themselves stood nearby chatting, joking and sharing snacks.”You’re in great shape, mate, look at your belly, it’s getting bigger,” Sy joked to one of the group.The cluster of newly released prisoners — some sporting Pastef bracelets — burst out laughing.- Proud -The group said they were proud of the resilience and solidarity forged in prison.But all denounced the “extreme” conditions, including overcrowding, poor quality food and insanitary toilets.”I’ve got itching all over my body,” said newly released Moussa, who displayed his spot-marked skin.Mouhamed Ndiaye said he went four months without sleeping properly because there was no space in his cell.Following 11 months in prison, he said he would have to start his life all over again after investing his money in motorbike taxis. “Before I got out of prison, I was determined to take to the sea to get out of this country when I was released,” he said.His mother has since talked him out of the idea and he said he was spurred on by his fight for the opposition.