Opposition leader Ousmane Sonko

Protests have erupted in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, after a court sentenced the leading opposition figure Ousmane Sonko to two years in jail for “corrupting youth”, dealing a blow to his chances of running for president next year.

Sonko, 48, was accused of raping a woman who worked in a beauty salon in 2021 and making death threats against her. He denies wrongdoing and is boycotting court proceedings.

The court on Thursday acquitted Sonko of charges of rape and issuing death threats, but found him guilty of a separate criminal offence described in the penal code as immoral behaviour towards individuals younger than 21.

The case has triggered violent protests, with Sonko’s supporters denouncing the charges against him as politically motivated, which the government and justice officials deny.

Sonko’s Patriots of Senegal (PASTEF) party said the verdict was part of a political plot and called on citizens to take to the streets.

Violence erupted at a central university campus, where protesters set a car alight and threw rocks at riot police, who responded by firing tear gas.

Sonko has maintained his innocence and claims President Macky Sall is manipulating the judiciary to torpedo his political career – a charge the government denies

If he had been convicted of rape, he would have faced up to 20 years’ imprisonment.

His electoral eligibility had already been overshadowed by a six-month suspended prison sentence for defamation against a minister. Sonko is appealing that sentence.

Corrupting young people, which includes using one’s position of power to have sex with people under age 21, is a criminal offence in Senegal that is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to more than $6,000.

Under Senegalese law, his conviction would bar Sonko from running in next year’s election, said Bamba Cisse, a defence lawyer.

One of Sonko’s lawyers, Djiby Diagne, said, “Ousmane’s Sonko’s candidacy is in jeopardy.”

The court did not rule on whether he should be arrested.

“The decision to arrest him or not depends on the public prosecutor,” Diagne said.

Ousmane Sonko
Opposition leader Ousmane Sonko waves to his supporters during a meeting in Ziguinchor, Senegal [File: Muhamadou Bittaye/AFP]

‘Sad day for Senegal’s democracy’

Adama Gaye, author, journalist and former director of information at the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) told Al Jazeera that the government has influenced the verdict.

“It’s a very sad day for Senegal’s democracy. Senegal was known for dirty politics, but that is what we are witnessing now. This may usher a lot of tensions as we move towards the 2024 presidential elections,” Gaye said.

“The government is adamant about maintaining law and order. It will try to abide by the decision made by the justice and this is clearly a decision that is somehow masterminded and doctored by the government, because justice in Senegal is clearly controlled by the executive.”

Tensions were rising across the country before Sonko’s conviction and sentencing. Tight security surrounded the court as well as Sonko’s house and many businesses closed for fear of violence.

On Thursday morning, security forces prevented journalists and Sonko’s supporters from approaching the house, throwing tear gas without warning at a group of reporters.

Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from the road leading to Sonko’s house, said “police are overwhelmed” with the protests, which have spread beyond Dakar to other major cities in the country including Ziguinchor.

“There is sheer anger at this verdict that came out of the court earlier today … the fire that we see breaking out is actually at the [university’s] faculty of law. It’s a symbol of how these demonstrators feel towards the justice system,” Haque said.

“They accuse President Macky Sall of using the justice system to clamp down on the opposition and to detain political opponents or political rivals.”

The court also sentenced Sonko’s co-accused, Ndeye Khady Ndiaye, the owner of the beauty salon, to two years’ imprisonment.

A demonstrator throws a rock at riot policemen during a protest at the Cheikh Anta Diop University campus in Dakar, Senegal,
A demonstrator throws a rock at riot policemen during a protest at the Cheikh Anta Diop University campus in Dakar, Senegal [Leo Correa/AP Photo]
Tags : Opposition leader Ousmane SonkoPolitics
Adewale Adenrele

The author Adewale Adenrele

Journalist, PR, Researcher, Tourism& Cultural promoter, Social commentator. Correspondent @Africandevmag

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