Fresh unrest hit Senegal’s capital Dakar on Thursday after a court sentenced a leading opposition politician, Ousmane Sonko, to two years in jail for corrupting youth, undermining his chances of running for president next year.
Sonko, 48, was accused of raping a woman who worked in a massage parlour in 2021, when she was 20, and making death threats against her. He denies wrongdoing and says the charges are politically motivated.
A criminal court cleared Sonko of rape, but found him guilty of a separate offence described in the penal code as immoral behaviour towards individuals younger than 21.
This could prevent him from participating in February 2024 elections, according to Senegal’s electoral law.
“With this sentence Sonko cannot be a candidate,” said one of his lawyers, Bamba Cisse.
University law professor Ndiack Fall said Sonko could demand a retrial if he turns himself in to authorities.
The rape case has triggered violent protests in the West African country since 2021. Sonko’s supporters denounce the charges as a ploy to prevent him from running in next year’s election. The government and the justice system deny this.
Sonko’s PASTEF party said the verdict was part of a political plot and called on citizens to take to the streets.
Thick black smoke billowed from a central university campus, where protesters had set several buses alight and threw rocks at riot police, who responded by firing tear gas.
A former tax inspector who came third in the last election, Sonko has tapped in to frustrations with President Macky Sall that have grown since he was elected in 2012.
Critics say Sall has failed to create jobs and has stifled opposition criticism amid rumours he may seek to bypass presidential term limits and run again next year. Sall has neither confirmed nor denied this.
Sonko has garnered strong support among the young, many of whom have responded to his calls to take to the streets to protest against his judicial problems, prompting security crackdowns that have led to deaths.
Demonstrations are not uncommon in Senegal and typically increase around elections. But Sall’s second term has been particularly turbulent for a country usually viewed as one of West Africa’s strongest democracies.
Separately, Sonko is appealing against a six-month suspended prison sentence for libel. The implications of that case for his presidential bid are not yet clear.