Why hundreds of young people are being trapped, tortured in private prisons in Senegal

Police in Senegal carried out raids on November 26 and 28 on several correctional facilities where hundreds of people, some just teenagers, were being held. These private reform centres, which are run by followers of the religious leader and politician Serigne Modou Kara, claim to put wayward young people back on the “right path.” But according to a statement by police, the people in these facilities were mistreated and sometimes even tortured. 

Hundreds of people are being held and subjected to torture in reform centres meant to put them on the “right path”.
Hundreds of people are being held and subjected to torture in reform centres meant to put them on the “right path”. © Screengrab, Facebook

People across Senegal have expressed shock and horror at the videos posted online, which show the degrading conditions where people were kept in private reform centres run by Serigne Modou Kara, an influential religious leader from the Mouride Muslim Brotherhood and the president of the political movement the Party for Truth and Development.  



One of the videos posted on the page of online media outlet Limametti shows dozens of people trapped in a room with barred windows in what looks like an abandoned house. 

"It’s a private prison,” says one. 

“We’ve lived through horror,” says another.  

Police said, in a statement released on Sunday Decembre 2, that they had liberated 353 people between the ages of 17 to 42 years old who were being held in three different correctional facilities in a suburb of Dakar run by religious leaders. The people had been "placed under strict surveillance in terrible conditions and were visibly suffering from illness and severe malnutrition", says the statement.

Koranic schools called "daaras", where children receive a religious education, are widespread in Senegal. Religious leaders are often accused of forcing children to beg for their profit.  But the reform centres run by Serigne Modou Kara are something else entirely, says Sadikh Niass, the general secretary of the African Network for the Defense of Human Rights, an NGO based in Dakar. 

 "It’s the first time that we’ve seen centres where people get tortured”

We were really shocked when we saw the videos of these centres. We are struggling to understand how facilities like this were operating without the government’s knowledge. 

The young people who were held there were mistreated. Their dignity was violated. It’s important that the people who were abused get justice. As a civil society organisation, we are calling for investigations to be carried out and for those responsible for this crime to be identified and taken to court. 

In Senegal, there are many daaras run by marabouts or other religious leaders. These are centres where young people are educated. It’s a well-known tradition. In rural communities, attending one of these educational institutions is voluntary. (Pas sure si j’ai bien traduit cette phrase)  But this is the first time we’ve seen centres where people are being tortured. The parents who send their children (this is really weird to say “children” if those rescued from these centres were between the ages of 17 and 42) to these places weren’t aware of what was really going on.


Police arrest 43 people 

A total of 43 close associates of the religious leader were arrested on charges of criminal association and human trafficking, according to the police statement.  Serigne Modou Kara’s communications team rejected these accusations in a statement published on November 30, which was shared by French news agency AFP. Kara himself has not been investigated. 

 "These reform centres welcome victims of drugs, young people from the criminal justice system and those with mental illness” (Could also say “mental deficiencies” as that is a more direct translation) 

The "satisfying results” of these centres resulted in an increase in the number of residents, causing “overcrowding” and a “lack of resources,” Kara claimed. Mor Daga Sylla, the head of communications for a Dakar mosque with close ties to Serigne Modou Kara, also said he was shocked by what went on in the centre:

The marabout’s followers certainly acted improperly. Usually, when you send young people to reform centres, they are treated well. It’s the parents who send their children to these facilities when they have drug problems or they aren’t on the right path. I myself have sent young people to these centres in the past. I was quite surprised by what I saw on social media. 

"If we want to open these centres to help and support young people, we must do it legally and ask for support from the government,” added Sadhik Niass, the general secretary of RADDHO. "If you open these centres and don’t control what happens there, you are responsible. Wanting to open these centres is good. But they need to be up to standard".