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Senegalese Arrest of Ex-Prime Minister Criticized

Supporters of Idrissa Seck react in the streets of Dakar, Senegal Friday, July 15, 2005
Civil society groups in Senegal are denouncing the arrest of a former prime minister, accused of threatening the security of the state. The West African nation has long been seen as a model of democracy in a region of instability, but some now fear democratic values are being undermined by political infighting.

Senegal's former prime minister, Idrissa Seck, was arrested Friday on suspicion of embezzling more than $45 million from a building project in the city of Thies, where he is the mayor. Mr. Seck has denied the charge.

But the state prosecutor, Saturday, released a statement saying information had been received linking the former political ally of President Abdoulaye Wade to, what he called, a threat to the security of the state.

Mr. Seck, who was Senegal's prime minister until being fired by Mr. Wade last year, had been viewed by many as a potential rival to the president in elections scheduled for 2007. Some civil society groups see his arrest as politically motivated.

Human rights activist Alouine Tine says he is worried by what he sees as the recent influence of the government in cases brought against political leaders.

"The head-of-state or the minister of the interior cannot say who is guilty or not. Only the high court is competent to accuse them," he said.

In May, prosecutors arrested the leader of a minor opposition party, Abdourahim Agne, on similar charges.

Mr. Seck has yet to be formally charged, and his lawyer says he has been denied access to his client. Human rights activist Mr. Tine says none of this bodes well for democracy in Senegal, which is widely viewed as a beacon of democratic stability in a region long plagued by political unrest and repression. President Wade was a founding member of the African group for good governance, known as NEPAD [The New Partnership for Africa's Development].

"We have the impression that there is a regression about democracy and rule of law in Senegal. It is a shame that we can retain these kinds of charges now in Senegal," said Mr. Tine.

Journalist Oumar Gaye says Mr. Seck is an extremely popular politician, and his arrest has not gone down well with ordinary people. On the day of Mr. Seck's arrest, he says, thousands of supporters attempted to block the path of police, just after they arrested the former prime minister at his home in Dakar.

"It's about 10 or 15 minutes drive. But, that day, it took more than three hours," he said. "The streets of Dakar were full of people. The police were not happy about that."

Days later, Mr. Gaye says, Mr. Seck's arrest is still the main subject of conversation in Senegal, with some calling for popular demonstrations to push for his release.

"People are gathering in places, discussing the issue, so as to have structures to take, so as to free him. But I don't think he will get out like that," he said.

Mr. Seck, who had remained largely silent since he was fired as prime minister, announced last week that, if he were not appointed head of the ruling Senegal Democratic Party, he planned to head a new party in general elections set for next year. But, he said, he did not want to run against Mr. Wade in the 2007 presidential race.