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Senegal Supreme Court upholds ban on repatriating virus dead

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Senegal’s Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a ban on repatriating the bodies of citizens living abroad who have died of coronavirus, rejecting a plea from their distraught relatives.

A group of families with dead relatives abroad had sought to overturn the ban on the grounds that it violated their right to mourn and practise religion in the Muslim-majority West African country.

Senegal’s government banned bringing the bodies homes in April to stem the spread of the virus, leaving scores of them in limbo in countries such as France, Italy and the United States.

The exact number of Senegalese citizens who have died from COVID-19 overseas is unclear, but families have pointed to a figure of around 80, including 40 in France alone.

Lawyers for the families lodged an urgent appeal against the ban at the Supreme Court, arguing that diaspora citizens were being discriminated against and that not allowing their bodies home was an assault on their dignity.

They also told the court that the health risks involved in returning the bodies was “non-existent,” and that the ban infringed religious rights.

But on Thursday, the president of the court’s administrative chamber said the issue of whether bringing back the bodies of coronavirus victims is a risk was contested in medical circles.

“If that risk cannot be stated with certainty, neither can it be ruled out,” he added, before a courthouse where judges, lawyers and attendants were all wearing face masks.

The government acted on expert advice in a way that was legally justified, the president said.

Lawyers for the families said their clients were deeply distressed by the ruling.

‘We don’t know what to do’
For many of the family members of the Senegalese virus victims, not returning the bodies to the country prevents them from holding funerals and mourning.

Mbaye Diagne, a Paris lawyer working for the group of families, said that, traditionally, when you return to Senegal you visit family members as well as the graves of dead relatives.

He added that a deceased family member buried abroad constituted “a form of exile”.

The deceased father of 36-year fire safety officer Nicholas Mendy will be one of the cases affected.

Dying in Paris in April at age 71, Mendy’s father had emigrated to France from Senegal in 1968 and worked at carmaker Renault until his retirement in 2009, but had mostly kept his large family of three wives and seven children in his native country.

“We don’t know what to do anymore,” said Mendy, the only family member to live in Paris, who spoke to AFP by telephone before the court ruling.

“We want to bury him at home. All his children are in Senegal. It’s where he has his house, where all his children are, and where the world can visit his grave.”

For the moment, Mendy is paying 55 euros ($59) a day to keep his father in the morgue. “I have no choice,” he said.

Government lawyers argued in court that the decision to ban repatriation was not taken lightly, but that the scale of the crisis called for tough measures.

“Everyone in this room is wearing a mask, which is unheard of in the history of Senegal,” said Cheikhna Anne, a magistrate who was defending the government’s case.

“We are in exceptional circumstances that require exceptional measures”.

Senegal has recorded 1,492 coronavirus cases to date, with 13 fatalities.

In a bid to curb the virus, the government has shut schools, banned travel between cities and required people to wear a mask in public transport and shops.

It has also imposed a strict night-time curfew, and is currently providing food aid to millions of poor people affected by the health measures.


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