Friday 2 June 2023

SENEGAL: Clashes as opposition leader is jailed two years

Violence erupted in Senegal’s capital Dakar on Thursday after a court sentenced firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko to two years in jail for “corrupting youth,” a move that dims his hopes of contesting next year’s presidential election.

Sonko, President Macky Sall’s fiercest opponent, was absent when the judgment was handed down. He also did not attend the trial.

Two police officials told AFP on condition of anonymity that there had been three deaths in demonstrations in the southern city of Ziguinchor, where Sonko has been mayor since 2022, and a policeman was stoned to death by young protesters in Dakar.

This information has not been publicly confirmed by officials.

Sonko 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 have kept the country on tenterhooks, he could now be arrested “at any time”, Justice Minister Ismaila Madior Fall told journalists.

The university campus in 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, youths attacked a transport ticket office and other public property, burning tyres and placing obstacles in the streets.

Satire Mbaye, a presidential party official in the Dakar suburb of Keur Massar, said the party headquarters had been “ransacked.”

Trouble was reported elsewhere in the West African state — in Casamance in the south, Mbour and Kaolack in the west, and Saint-Louis in the north.

Several social media and messaging platforms including WhatsApp, Instagram, and YouTube were facing serious access restrictions in Senegal late Thursday.

“This situation resembles what was observed during the 2021 protests and is likely to significantly limit the public’s ability to communicate,” said Netblocks, a global internet monitor.

– Election bid –

The violence came hours after the Dakar criminal court ruling against Sonko. The case has deeply divided the country, sparking sporadic but deadly clashes that have battered the country’s image of stability.

Attention has focused on whether a conviction would prevent Sonko, the 48-year-old head of the PASTEF-Patriots party, from contesting next year’s vote.

The court convicted him of “corrupting youth”, defined as 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.

Ndeye Khady Ndiaye, the owner of the beauty 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 with 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.

– Divided country –

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.

A former civil servant, Sonko rose to prominence in the 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 a six-month suspended prison sentence this year for defamation against a minister.

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