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Opposition group calls for protests over Senegal election ruling

From Umaro Djau, CNN
February 1, 2012 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
A Senegalese court has ruled that President Abdoulaye Wade can run for office again.
A Senegalese court has ruled that President Abdoulaye Wade can run for office again.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President's office predicts Tuesday protest will be small
  • Senegal's opposition movement calls for mass protest against election ruling
  • The ruling Friday keeps three independent candidates off the ballot
  • It also allows the country's president to run for a third term

(CNN) -- Senegal's opposition June 23rd Movement is calling for a mass rally in Dakar on Tuesday to protest a ruling allowing President Abdoulaye Wade to run for a third term as well as to demand the release of dozens of government critics arrested in the wake of weekend rioting that followed the decision.

The group is also demanding that Senegal's highest court, the constitutional council, allow three independent candidates, including Grammy-winning musician Youssou N'Dour, to seek the presidency of the West African nation, spokesman Amath Dansokho said Monday.

The court rejected their candidacies on Friday in the same ruling that granted Wade and 13 others spots on the February ballot.

The court ruled that the candidates -- N'dour, Abdourahmane Sarr and Kéba Keinde -- failed to gather 10,000 valid signatures.

The court ruled Wade could stand for re-election despite a provision in the country's 2001 constitution that limits the president to two terms in office.

Wade is in his second term in office. But the court ruled that his first term, won in a 2000 election, could not be counted toward the term limit because that election came before the constitution took effect.

"Between these two points of view, there must naturally be an arbiter," presidential spokesman Serigne Mbacke Ndiaye said Monday. "In our country, we have chosen as our arbiter the constitutional council."

The opposition, however, does not trust the decision of the council, because all five judges were appointed by Wade and are widely thought to have limited independence.

Danshohko called the decision a "constitutional coup."

U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Wade should step aside.

"The statesmanly-like thing to do would be to cede to the next generation, and we think that would be better." She added, "We work with the government the people elect. But again, our view is that Senegalese democracy is strong enough to move to the next generation."

The ruling Friday set off riots in the capital of Dakar. Demonstrators set tires on fire and engaged in running street battles with authorities, with some protesters blocking roads by placing barricades in and around several city neighborhoods.

One police officer died in the violence, while a journalist was injured, as police were trying to disperse crowds, according to a state news report.

Ndiaye said the planned Tuesday protest will mobilize only a small fraction of the population.

"Today, the truth is that the Senegalese people are fundamentally attached to Abdoulaye Wade," he said.

In addition to its electoral demands, the June 23rd Movement is seeking the release of Alioune Tine, a top member of the movement, and dozens of others the group says were arrested on Saturday after the riots.

The group is also seeking the release of Barthelemy Dias, a Socialist Party official accused of shooting a man to death during clashes in December.

Although West Africa has a history of military coups and civil wars, Senegal largely has been an exception. It has never experienced a military coup.

However, political tensions have increased leading up to the February election.

In June, thousands of protesters clashed with police in Dakar after Wade proposed changes to the constitution that his critics alleged were meant to make it easy for him to win re-election.

Journalist Nick Loomis contributed to this report.

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