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Senegal: 9 dead in protests after opposition leader jailed

June 2, 2023

Government critic Ousmane Sonko was acquitted of rape charges but found guilty of "corrupting youth." His trial has triggered street protests that left nine people dead.

Sonko holds a press conference in Dakar, Senegal on March 16, 2021.
The opposition leader has denied the rape charges against him, arguing they were politically motivated Image: Fatma Esma Arslan/AA/picture alliance

Nine people were killed in the protests that erupted following the sentencing of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, authorities said early on Friday. 

Interior Minister Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome made this announcement on state television, adding that the deaths happened in Dakar and Ziguinchor.

A Senegalese court sentenced on Thursday sentenced former presidential candidate Ousmane Sonko to two years in prison over "corrupting youth," but acquitted him of rape charges.

Sonko, who is particularly popular among younger voters, had repeatedly said the rape charges were a ploy to stop him from running for the presidency next year. He boycotted the trial proceedings, but was forcibly returned to Dakar by the police on Sunday, ahead of the verdict.

What happened in the Senegal protests?

Following the verdict, supporters of Sonko took to the streets and threw rocks at riot police and set buses on fire. 

Sonko's political party, PASTEF, claimed that the verdict was part of a political conspiracy and issued a statement urging citizens to "stop all activity and take to the streets."

In Dakar, thick black smoke was seen in the central university campus as protesters set multiple buses ablaze and clashed with riot police, who responded by using tear gas.

Despite signs of ongoing sporadic unrest throughout the evening, government spokesperson Abdou Karim Fofana assured the public that security forces had the situation under control in the capital.

Sonko and supporters decry 'politically motivated' trial

 Like Sonko, his supporters argue the charges are politically motivated, which the authorities deny.

A Senegalese gendarme stand near a smoke billowing from burning tires during a protest in Dakar
Sonko was forcibly returned to Dakar ahead of the ruling, triggering protests by his supportersImage: JOHN WESSELS/AFP

Sonko, who is president of the PASTEF-Patriots party, came third in the 2019 presidential election behind incumbent Macky Sall and former Prime Minister Idrissa Seck.

Senegal's electoral laws bar individuals convicted of criminal offenses from running for political office.

A lawyer present at the hearing told the French AFP news agency that "corrupting youth" is a lesser offense than rape. The charge refers to the act of debauching or encouraging the debauchery of a person under the age of 21.

It is not yet clear whether Thursday's hearing is sufficient to disqualify Sonko from Senegal's next election.

Sonko has also recently received a 6-month suspended sentence in a defamation case, which he vowed to appeal.

What do we know about the rape case?

The prosecution claims the 48-year-old politician sexually assaulted and made death threats against a woman who worked in a massage parlor in 2021. Prosecutors were seeking a 10-year jail term for the politician.

Sonko claims he visited the "Sweet Beaute" salon in the capital, Dakar, for a massage for chronic back pain. He denies any assault.

In court, his accuser provided details of the alleged abuse, saying she was raped five times and had received death threats.

A doctor who consulted her on the evening of the alleged event said he had found evidence of sexual intercourse.

The salon's owner, who was accused of complicity in rape, was sentenced to two years. Ndeye Khady Ndiaye had denied that any of the services provided by her former staff involved sexual acts.

rmt, ss/dj (AFP, Reuters)