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.