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Sonko, Senegal's opposition head, released before election

March 15, 2024

Ousmane Sonko, who finished third in the country's 2019 presidential election, is widely seen as the main challenger to President Macky Sall's ruling party.

Protesters march through the streets with a portrait of Ousmane Sonko, in Dakar, May 12, 2023
At least 16 people died in protests last year, following Sonko's sentencingImage: John Wessels/AFP

Senegal's top opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was released from jail late Thursday ahead of the country's presidential contest, his lawyer said.

Sonko had fought a long legal battle to contest the election, which is scheduled for March 24, but was ultimately barred from running. 

Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who was also released from prison along with Sonko, was instead named as the opposition's election candidate.

Faye was a relatively unknown political figure until Sonko backed his presidential candidacy in January.

Faye, unlike Sonko, is being allowed to run for president as a court has yet to rule on the charges filed against him. It wasn't immediately clear how the court's decision will impact the upcoming election.

Senegal election authority overturns vote delay

Deadly protests rock Senegal

Sonko, who had long been seen as the main opponent of President Macky Sall, was sentenced to two years in prison last summer after a court found him guilty for "corrupting youth."

His sentencing triggered deadly clashes in Senegal, with supporters, often young people, taking to the streets across the country and facing off with security officers.

Supporters gathered at Sonko's house and at other locations in the capital Dakar late Thursday to celebrate as soon as news trickled out about his release. Drivers tooted their horns in celebration.

Senegal's tumultuous last year

Senegal has been rocked by political uncertainty over the past year, since President Sall suggested that he might run for a third term, beyond the constitutional limit of two terms.

Sonko's supporters, meanwhile, accused Sall's government of jailing the opposition leader in a bid to keep him out of the presidential race. 

Senegal's image as a beacon of stability in West Africa, a region that has seen dozens of coups in recent decades, has taken a hit as a result of the tumultuous politics.

But after much suspense, Sall announced in July 2023 that he would not run again, garnering praise from regional and international partners for his decision.

rm/sri (AP, Reuters)