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Senegalese Opposition Leader Released from Jail

The head of one of Senegal's minor opposition parties has been released more than two weeks after his arrest on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. His detainment under a controversial constitutional article has tarnished the country's image as a democratic leader in the region, human rights activists say.

Reform Party leader Abdourahim Agne was provisionally released late Wednesday, a spokesman for his party said. Requests for his release on bail had initially been denied due to objections by the prosecution.

But after the intervention of traditional Muslim religious and community leaders, known as marabouts, the prosecution dropped its opposition to his release.

Mr. Agne was arrested May 30, following a press conference in the southern Senegalese city of Kaolack, where he had called upon demonstrators to follow the example of Ukraine. Mass protests in the Eastern European country recently overturned fraudulent election results there, ushering the leading opposition candidate into power.

Senegalese authorities later used a long disputed anti-sedition law, known as Article 80, to charge Mr. Agne with inciting public unrest and plotting to overthrow the government of President Abdoulaye Wade.

A Senegalese human rights lawyer for the London-based group Inter Rights, Ibrahima Kane, says President Wade's use of Article 80 does not bode well for parliamentary elections scheduled for next year or presidential polls set for 2007.

"This is happening just a few months before the elections. And that is really worrying, because it means that any person who is a possible threat to Wade will have problems," he said.

President Wade, a former opposition leader who originally pushed for the abolition of Article 80, struggled for decades to establish a multi-party system during an era of one-party rule by Senegal's Socialist Party. A founding member of NEPAD, an African grouping promoting good governance, he has been viewed by many as a model democrat in a region fighting to overcome a history of colonialism and dictatorship.

Mr. Kane says the arrest of Mr. Agne has tarnished Senegal's democratic image. But he says, President Wade's actions may actually serve as a boost to Mr. Agne's small party.

"In just doing a very bad work, Wade is also helping the opposition and giving them more publicity," he said.

Journalist Oumar Gaye says, despite the concerns of human rights activists, Senegal is still a long way from becoming a dictatorship.

"In some countries, such as the Gambia, or Guinea, or Mali, if you say those words, you will be remaining in jail for 10 years," he said.

He says he thinks democracy is about elections and not street politics.

"Democracy does not mean saying whatever you want," he noted. "No, that is not the definition of democracy."

Opposition leaders have complained of a growing atmosphere of impunity, following several unexplained attacks against some of them. Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets earlier this year to demonstrate their discontentment with President Wade's government.