Senegal’s government shuts down internet access over clashes

The Senegalese government temporarily blocked cellphone data on Sunday as the country has been rocked by days of deadly clashes between police and supporters of opposition leader Oumane Sonko.

The Ministry of Communications, Telecommunications and Digital Economy said that due to the spread of “subversive messages related to public unrest in certain places”, internet connection via mobile phones will be blocked for certain periods.

The statement came after days of deadly clashes between Sonko’s supporters and police across the West African country. The official death toll is unclear. The government says 15 people, including two members of the security forces, were killed, while the opposition says 19 people died.

Police officers in riot gear stand guard during clashes with protesters in Dakar, Senegal, Saturday June 3, 2023. Clashes first erupted late this week after opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was convicted of bribing youth and sentenced to two years in prison. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

The clashes first erupted on Thursday after Sonko was convicted of bribing a youth but acquitted of raping and making death threats to a woman who worked at a massage parlour. Sonko, who did not attend his trial in Dakar, was sentenced to two years in prison. His lawyer said no arrest warrant had been issued for him.

Sonko finished third in Senegal’s 2019 presidential election and is popular with the country’s youth. His supporters claim his legal troubles are part of the government’s effort to quash his candidacy for the 2024 presidential election.

Sonko is considered President Macky Sall’s main rival and has urged Sall to state publicly that he is not seeking a third term. Sonko has not been seen or heard from since the sentencing.

The international community has called on the Senegalese government to ease tensions.

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The government had already blocked access to some social media sites, such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, which were allegedly used to incite violence.

At a press conference on Saturday night, the government said it would take all necessary measures to secure the country.

“I want to reassure the Senegalese people that no matter what attacks we have, the state will face them,” Interior Minister Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome said. Around 500 people have been arrested across the country, including both members of political parties and those just trying to intimidate people, he said.

Human rights groups have condemned the government’s crackdown, which they say has included arbitrary arrests.

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