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The civil unrest in Senegal as protesters face force from militarized police

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The West African nation of Senegal has long been seen as a relative model of calm in a region that is often plagued by instability. That reputation is getting tarnished lately. High youth unemployment and clampdowns on civil rights have triggered demonstrations, and the mostly young protesters are being met by an increasingly militarized police force, as Ricci Shryock reports.

OMAR: (Through interpreter) The bullet enter right here in my arm and came out of here, and it went across my stomach.

RICCI SHRYOCK, BYLINE: Twenty-seven-year-old Omar holds his limp right hand as he waits to see a doctor in Senegal's capital, Dakar.

OMAR: (Through interpreter) If it had been a little different, I could have died. My friend managed to get me to safety, but now my hand is at risk of being paralyzed.

SHRYOCK: Omar could not definitively say who shot him, but he thinks it was the police. He's frightened. He doesn't want to give us his full name. He's worried about the repercussions.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)

SHRYOCK: Like thousands of others, he was out on the street protesting after authorities announced that opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who was on trial for rape, was guilty of corrupting the youth. According to Amnesty Senegal, at least 23 people were killed and nearly 400 wounded during the protests. Many of them were under 30.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Screaming).

SHRYOCK: Sonko was acquitted of the rape charges, but the other charges could disqualify him from running for presidential elections next year. Protesters say the charges are yet another attempt by current President Macky Sall to suppress the opposition. These are tense times in Senegal.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR RUMBLING)

SHRYOCK: Here in Dakar, you can still see the charred remains of the destruction wrought during the demonstrations. During those few violent days in June, many were too scared to leave their homes. The government restricted access to some social media platforms, and mobile internet access was briefly cut. The president has called for an investigation into the violence.

SEYDI GASSAMA: The state of Senegal have really reinforced its security apparatus.

SHRYOCK: Amnesty Senegal's executive director Seydi Gassama says the police are responding to protesters using increasingly excessive force, including the support of armed men in plain clothes. Amnesty claims these men, known as nervis, are hired by the state to enforce security.

GASSAMA: This is very new - the first time that we have seen them in great number in white cars, I mean, parading and participating with batons, these firearms in the repression against citizens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

(CROSSTALK)

SHRYOCK: And this is not the only charge against the security services. In this video, a terrified 8-year-old is held back by a line of police, a human shield between them and rock-throwing protesters. During the unrest, many videos like this surfaced on social media. The government claimed these images are distorted and appropriate force is being used.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTOINE DIOM: (Speaking French).

SHRYOCK: "The security and defense forces in Senegal are professional and peaceful," claimed Interior Minister Antoine Diom. He told reporters the police cannot use a child as a human shield. For Omar, without a functioning right hand, he can no longer work his job as a mobile phone repairman. He doesn't know what the future will hold for him or for Senegal.

OMAR: (Through interpreter) We work all day and night without receiving anything. The youth have no work. The employment is bad. We're living in pain.

SHRYOCK: For NPR News, I'm Ricci Shryock, Dakar, Senegal.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "SING ABOUT ME, I'M DYING OF THIRST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ricci Shryock