Demonstrators throw stones and light fires in Dakar, on June 1, 2023 during a protest. – A court in Senegal on Thursday sentenced opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, a candidate in the 2024 presidential election, to two years in prison on charges of “corrupting youth” but acquitted him of rape and issuing death threats. (Photo by JOHN WESSELS / AFP)
Violence erupted in Senegal’s capital Dakar on Thursday after a court sentenced firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko to two years’ jail for “corrupting youth,” a move that darkens his hopes of contesting presidential elections next year.
Sonko, President Macky Sall’s fiercest opponent, was absent when the judgment was handed down. He also did not attend the trial.
He was presumed to be at his Dakar home, where he had been blocked in by security forces after being detained at the weekend.
But after two years of a confrontation with the authorities that has kept the country on tenterhooks, he could now be arrested “at any time”, Justice Minister Ismaila Madior Fall told journalists.
The university campus in the centre of Dakar looked like a battlefield.
Clashes broke out with groups of young people pelting police in riot gear with stones. Police fired back with tear gas.
Several buses from the faculty of medicine, the history department and the country’s leading school of journalism were set on fire and offices ransacked. Classes were suspended until further notice.
Elsewhere, young people attacked a transport ticket office and other public property in parts of the city, burning tyres and placing obstacles in the streets, an AFP photographer saw.
Images of unrest elsewhere in the country circulated on social networks.
Apart from these outbreaks of violence, the streets of Dakar were virtually deserted, an unusual sight in a teeming metropolis.
Trouble was reported elsewhere in the country, in Casamance in the south, Mbour and Kaolack in the west and Saint-Louis in the north.
Satire Mbaye, a presidential party official in the Dakar suburb of Keur Massar, said the party headquarters had been “ransacked.”
“They broke the windows and destroyed the equipment inside”, she said. “They asked where was the house of Assome Diatta, the party’s local leader”.
The motorway leading to the airport was cut off by demonstrators, according to local media, while a commuter train connecting the new city of Diamniadio to the capital halted service.
– Election bid –
The violence came hours after the Dakar criminal court ruling against Sonko. The two-year-old case has deeply divided the West African state, sparking sporadic but deadly clashes that have battered the country’s image of stability.
Attention has focused on whether a conviction would prevent Sonko, 48-year-old head of the PASTEF-Patriots party, from contesting next year’s vote.
The court convicted him of “corrupting youth”, which consists of encouraging the “debauchery” of a young person under the age of 21.
But it acquitted him on charges of rape and issuing death threats.
The complainant, Adji Sarr, a former employee of the beauty salon where Sonko used to get massages, was under 21 at the time of the events.
She has been threatened, insulted and placed under police protection since the scandal broke two years ago.
During proceedings, Sarr said Sonko had abused her on five occasions between late 2020 and early 2021.
Sonko has maintained his innocence and claims the president is manipulating the judiciary to torpedo his political career — a charge the government denies.
“This verdict on command is the final stage in the plot hatched by Macky Sall and his henchmen”, said Sonko’s party in a press release.
It called on the Senegalese people to “take to the streets” and on the police to join them.
Ndeye Khady Ndiaye, the owner of the salon, was also sentenced to two years in prison for incitement to debauchery, but acquitted of complicity in rape.
She and Sonko must each pay a fine of 600,000 CFA francs ($980) and jointly pay 20 million CFA francs ($33,000) in damages to the complainant.
“We are satisfied of Sonko’s guilt”, El Hadji Diouf, Adji Sarr’s lawyer, told reporters.
But 20 million CFA francs in damages is little for the “suffering” Sarr has endured, he said.
The ruling appears to threaten the politician’s eligibility for next year’s presidential election under the electoral code.
One of his lawyers, Djiby Diagne, said “Ousmane 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.
“Let all Senegalese know: Ousmane Sonko can no longer be a candidate”, said another of his lawyers, Bamba Cisse.
– Divided country –
A former civil servant, Sonko rose to prominence in presidential elections in 2019, where he came in third after a campaign that dealt verbal blows to Sall and the country’s ruling elite.
Sonko portrays Sall as corrupt and a would-be dictator, while the president’s supporters call him a rabble-rouser who has sown instability.
His initial arrest on rape charges in 2021 sparked several days of clashes that left at least 12 people dead.
Sonko’s electoral eligibility was already overshadowed by an earlier court battle.
He was handed six-month suspended prison sentence this year for defamation against a minister.