Senegal court sentences Ousmane Sonko for ‘corrupting youth’, clears him of charges of rape and issuing death threats.
A court in Senegal has sentenced the leading opposition figure Ousmane Sonko to two years in jail for “corrupting youth”.
The court on Thursday acquitted Sonko, a candidate in the 2024 presidential election, of rape charges and issuing death threats.
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Sonko, 48, was accused of raping a woman who worked in a beauty salon in 2021 and making death threats against her. He denies wrongdoing and is boycotting court proceedings.
The case has triggered violent protests, with Sonko’s supporters denouncing the charges against him as politically motivated, which the government and justice officials deny.
Reporting from Dakar, Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque said Sonko would “probably spend the night in jail”.
“The judge will ask for a mandate for security forces to bring him to jail. All eyes are on Ousmane Sonko’s house. He says that he is living almost under house arrest. There’s a heavy security presence around his home. The next step is trying to get him out of his home and into jail”.
Sonko has maintained his innocence and claims President Macky Sall is manipulating the judiciary to torpedo his political career – a charge the government denies.
If he had been convicted of rape, he would have faced up to 20 years’ imprisonment.
His electoral eligibility had already been overshadowed by a six-month suspended prison sentence for defamation against a minister.
Corrupting young people, which includes using one’s position of power to have sex with people under age 21, is a criminal offense in Senegal that is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to more than $6,000.
Under Senegalese law, his conviction would bar Sonko from running in next year’s election, said Bamba Cisse, a defense lawyer.
“The conviction for corruption of youth hinders his eligibility because he was sentenced in absentia, so we can’t appeal,” Cisse said. Law professors in Senegal say the verdict can be appealed but only once Sonko is imprisoned.
One of Sonko’s lawyers Djiby Diagne said, “Ousmane’s 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.
‘Sad day for Senegal’s democracy’
Adama Gaye, author, journalist and former director of information at ECOWAS (Economic Community of West Africa States) told Al Jazeera that the government has influenced the verdict.
“It’s a very sad day for Senegal’s democracy. Senegal was known for dirty politics, but that is what we are witnessing now. This may usher a lot of tensions as we move towards the 2024 presidential elections,” Gaye said.
“The government is adamant about maintaining law and order. It will try to abide by the decision made by the justice and this is clearly a decision that is somehow masterminded and doctored by the government, because justice in Senegal is clearly controlled by the executive.”
Tensions were rising across the country before Sonko’s conviction and sentencing. Tight security surrounded the court as well as Sonko’s house and many businesses closed for fear of violence.
Shortly after the verdict was announced, clashes erupted at the main university in the capital. Protesters threw rocks at police officers, who fired back with tear gas. At least one car was burned.
On Thursday morning, security forces prevented journalists and Sonko’s supporters from approaching the house, throwing tear gas without warning at a group of reporters, including an AFP journalist.
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque reporting from the road leading to Sonko’s house, said “police are overwhelmed” with the protests which have spread beyond Dakar to other major cities in the country including Ziguinchor.
“There is sheer anger at this verdict that came out of the court earlier today… the fire that we see breaking out is actually at the [university’s] faculty of law. It’s a symbol of how these demonstrators feel towards the justice system,” Haque said.
“They accuse President Macky Sall of using the justice system to clamp down on the opposition and to detain political opponents or political rivals.”
The court also sentenced Sonko’s co-accused, Ndeye Khady Ndiaye, the owner of the beauty salon, to two years’ imprisonment.
Separately, Sonko is appealing against a six-month suspended prison sentence for libel.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES