FREE SÉNY: A protester at a June 4 rally in the Little Senegal neighborhood of Harlem. (Mark Banchereau)

“This wasn’t a lawful arrest”—New Yorker detained amid protests

When Ousseynou Sène, the New York-based social media activist known as Sény, traveled to Senegal at the end of May to visit a friend, he only expected to stay for a couple of days. 

Yet more than a month later, the U.S. citizen remains stuck in Senegal, awaiting trial after he was arrested while filming anti-government protesters in Dakar. 

Sény in July 2019 (Via Instagram)

“The police saw me recording and told me to hand over my phone.” Sény, 38, told the NYCity News Service in a phone interview. “When I refused to give it to them, they slapped me and took me into custody.”

Sény was detained for two days, without any way of contacting a lawyer or his family back in New York. His wife was unaware of his arrest until he was released. 

“This wasn’t a lawful arrest,” says Sény. “It was a kidnapping.” 

In New York, Ousseynou Sène works as an Uber driver to support his family, which includes young children 3, 5 and 7. On Senegalese social media, he is known for TikTok and YouTube videos in which he criticizes the regime of President Macky Sall. 

Sény moved to the United States in 2012, where met his wife and became a citizen. Despite having an American passport, he is unable to return to New York. He says he contacted the U.S. Embassy in Dakar and was told the State Department cannot assist him without a letter from a judge allowing him to leave the country. The embassy declined to comment.

Sény is one of many activists who say that their rights were abused during deadly clashes between police and supporters of Ousmane Sonko, a leading opposition figure who was sentenced to two years in prison in early June. 

“Seny Sene on the political situation in Senegal,” on YouTube (in the Wolof language)

Senegal has long been praised as one of the most stable democracies in Africa. Now political experts and human rights groups are denouncing an increased use of authoritarian tactics by the Sall government. 

The sentencing of Sonko sparked protests from the Senegalese diaspora in Europe and North America. Following protests and vandalism of  Senegalese diplomatic missions in France and Italy, consulates in Milan, Paris and New York were temporarily closed.

In New York, home to around 30,000 people from Senegal, protesters gathered in front of the consulate in Harlem on June 4 and in front of Fox News’ Midtown headquarters on June 10, demanding Sall’s resignation.

A demonstrator at the June 4 rally in Harlem appeals for Sény’s release. (Mark Banchereau)

“We need the international community to speak out against what is happening in Senegal,” says Ibrahima Dramé, one of the organizers of the Midtown protest. “The U.S administration needs to condemn Macky Sall’s authoritarian tactics.”

Sonko, a main challenger to Sall’s government in next year’s presidential election, enjoys widespread support from Senegalese immigrants in the U.S. In the last presidential elections in 2019, Sonko came in first in the North American electoral district, with about 46% of votes. In Senegal, he received 15%, placing third.

Sonko was acquitted of a rape charge but found guilty of “corrupting youth,” which Senegalese law defines as “immoral behavior” involving a person under 21. The conviction, which his supporters call politically motivated, prevents Sonko from being a candidate. 

On July 3, Sall—who had long remained unclear about whether he would seek a third term, even though the Senegalese constitution limits presidents to two—announced he will not run again.

Authoritarian drift

At least 23 people were killed and nearly 400 injured in the early June violence in Senegal, according to Amnesty International. While Sall praised the “professionalism” of security forces, victims’ accounts and social media footage reveal Senegalese police and armed militias carrying out violence.

Images of Pape Abdoulaye Touré, a 25-year-old student, who was hospitalized after being beaten and tortured by a group of men after being accused of attacking a minister’s house, went viral on Senegalese social media. 

“They broke his arm and his foot and left his face covered in blood,” says Yolande Camara, a coordinator of the opposition movement Senegal Notre Priorité, who was at the hospital. “He is in a stable condition now. But he still has difficulties breathing and seeing.”

Camara told the News Service that the men seen beating Touré are nervis—a French word for “thugs” that is used in Senegal to refer to armed men who are deployed by the government to quell protests. They are to blame for numerous killings and beatings, according to protesters and human-rights groups. 

Gunmen in civilian clothes have been videoed shooting at protesters. Minister of the Interior Antoine Diome admitted that nervis were responsible for some of the violence in a June 15 speech but refused to comment on possible ties between the gunmen and the government. He promised an investigation.

The Harlem protest was one of several in New York. “We need the international community to speak out against what is happening in Senegal,” one protest organizer says. (Mark Banchereau)

While neighboring Mali and Guinea have endured military coups in the last two years, Senegal is one of the few West African countries to have never experienced an authoritarian takeover since gaining sovereignty. The country, which became independent from France in 1960, has long taken pride in a culture of free expression and its multi-party political system.

In recent years, political commentators and human-rights groups have denounced an increasing authoritarian turn under Sall. Senegal went from 49th to 104th place in Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index in the past two years, with more arrests and threats against journalists and activists. 

Most notably, investigative journalist Pape Ale Niang, director of the news outlet Dakar Matin, was detained for two months after sharing a police report that allegedly exonerated Sonko from the rape charge ahead of his trial. 

Following international pressure, Niang was temporarily released on Jan. 10. 

The case of Dame Mbodj 

Intimidation tactics directed at other activists and journalists have gone even further. 

On the night of March 15, Dame Mbodj, secretary general of Cusems Authentique, a trade union representing education workers, and a prominent critic of Sall, was shot at seven times while driving home after giving an interview on Tele Futur Media, a main TV channel. 

“In Senegal, when you are a public figure that is not in favor of the government, they want to silence you first,” Mbodj told the News Service. “And if you refuse to be silent, they are ready to kill you.” 

Mbdoj believes that police investigators are willingly protecting the shooters’ identities.

“I think that they don’t want to catch them,” he says. “Their faces are clearly visible in the surveillance video footage, if they wanted they would have arrested them by now.”