Human Rights Watch on Monday urged Senegal to revise new anti-terror legislation that it warned could stifle government criticism by punishing political speech and protests as “terrorist acts”.
In a statement, the rights group said the new laws would “dangerously expand police surveillance powers” in the West African country and threaten the right to association by targeting the leaders of unions and political parties.
Senegal’s national assembly passed two contested anti-terror bills on June 25, despite push-back from opposition parties.
The government argued that the laws are intended to strengthen its fight against terror groups, but opposition parties maintain they are designed to silence dissent.
One clause which has provoked criticism defines “seriously disturbing public order” as an act of terrorism.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that this “vague definition could be used to criminalise peaceful political activities and infringe on freedom of association and assembly”.
It added that the legislation would also allow law-enforcement officials to surveil terrorism suspects without seeking authorisation from a judge.
Leaders of trade unions or political parties can be held responsible for offences committed by their organisations under the new rules, HRW said.
Police would also be empowered to seize property from the organisations and their leaders if they are found guilty.
Ilaria Allegrozzi, a senior HRW Africa researcher, was quoted in the statement as saying that Senegal has legitimate concerns about the threat of armed Islamist groups, but that the government should ensure the new laws do not “suppress basic rights”.
“The government should send the two laws back to parliament to revise the problematic provisions,” she added.
The passage of the anti-terror legislation comes amid uncertainty in Senegal over whether President Macky Sall will seek a controversial third term.
Senegalese presidents are limited to two consecutive terms, but some fear Sall will seek to exploit constitutional changes approved in a 2016 referendum to run again in 2024.
Sall has not yet signed the new anti-terror legislation into law. On June 30, 21 opposition lawmakers appealed to Senegal’s constitutional council, which rules on constitutional matters, to strike the laws down.