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Senegal Government Defends Jailing Opposition Leader

Senegal's government is defending its decision to arrest a minor opposition leader, accusing him of inciting unrest. But opposition and human rights activists say the arrest shows freedom of speech is under threat in one of the countries which helped found NEPAD, the African grouping promoting good governance.

A statement Tuesday from the communications ministry says Senegal's democratic institutions cannot accommodate what it calls assaults that could lead to chaos. It says such declarations are seditious acts.

Minor opposition leader Abdourahim Agne, who has heart problems, was taken into custody at a hospital in Dakar this week, pending a trial.

Justice Minister Cheikh Tidiane Sy says that during Mr. Agne's controversial speech in the central city of Kaolack last week he called on protesters to follow the example of Ukraine. A citizen protest in that Eastern European country recently helped overturn fraudulent election results.

A Senegalese human rights lawyer for the London-based group Inter Rights, Ibrahim Kane, says Mr. Agne was charged under the disputed article 80 of Senegal's constitution. He says President Abdoulaye Wade has failed to rescind this article, which bans threats to public order, but was used in the past to stifle criticism.

"When this new government came to power, one of their main objectives was to change the legislation," he said. "But after five years, the legislation is still there. So people are instrumentalizing that law to fight against their opponents."

Mr. Wade helped launch the New Partnership for Africa's Development, known as NEPAD, which aims to bring economic recovery through democratic reforms under a system of peer-review. Mr. Kane says the arrest does not bode well for the whole continent, because of Senegal's important role.

"Wade's regime is now trying to really undermine the democratic system we have in the country," he said. "And that is really, really, really a bad signal for democratization in African countries. Senegal is seen as one of those countries that can really help those who are still under dictatorship to change. But if Senegal is behaving like this, I'm questioning myself, where are we going to?"

A movie director critical of Mr. Wade was recently prevented from leaving Senegal, while opposition leaders complain of a climate of impunity following several unexplained attacks on some of them. Last month, thousands of opposition supporters rallied in Dakar in a rare show of discontent.

These developments also come amid several high-profile defections from Mr. Wade's political party, ahead of 2006 legislative and 2007 presidential polls.