Sonko election bid in doubt as Senegal court increases sentence

Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko attends a protest to demand the release of alleged political prisoners ahead of his court appearance on Thursday on libel charges, in Dakar, Senegal March 14, 2023. [Zohra Bensemra/Senegal]

The ruling is the latest twist in a saga that has fuelled unrest in Senegal, a usually stable state in a restive region.

A Senegalese court has handed opposition figure Ousmane Sonko a six-month suspended sentence in an appeal of a defamation case that could jeopardise his run for president next year.

In March, he received a two-month suspended sentence and a hefty fine in March for defaming Tourism Minister Mame Mbaye Niang. On Monday, a Dakar appeals court increased the term to six months, potentially making Sonko ineligible for the vote.

Baboucar Cisse, a lawyer for the minister, told reporters the sentence would rule Sonko out of the 2024 presidential vote if confirmed following a six-day period for appeals.

Sonko, 48, came third in the 2019 presidential election and intends to stand again in 2024, but two court cases could ruin his candidacy.

A spokesman for Sonko’s party, Ousseynou Ly, and supporters on social media also said the ruling would scupper his bid if upheld, but the politician’s lawyers left the court without responding to questions.

Moussa Diaw, a senior lecturer in political science at Gaston Berger University in Saint Louis, told reporters that “if this sentence is final, there is a good chance that his candidacy will be inadmissible”.

The court also ordered Sonko to pay 200 million CFA francs (about $330,000) in damages to Niang.

Sonko failed to turn up to Monday’s proceedings, after warning he would no longer respond to court summons without guarantees for his safety.

Al Jazeera correspondent Nicolas Haque reports that the opposition leader has already called for a national movement of civil disobedience and said he wouldn’t attend trials due to a lack of trust in government institutions to dispense justice.

Sonko is also facing trial later this month for alleged “rape and death threats” over a complaint filed by an employee at a beauty salon where he went for a massage.

“We have never seen in the whole world a citizen summoned to court, who turns himself in, be the subject of so much fierceness, so much brutality and an attempt almost at physical liquidation,” he said on social media on Sunday.

He appeared to refer to his claims of a March assassination attempt by police during his forced transfer to the Dakar court during initial defamation proceedings.

“It is no longer justice, it is judicial banditry, and that is why I made the decision, still within the framework of my civil disobedience campaign, to no longer collaborate with this justice” without security guarantees, Sonko said.

In addition to appealing his defamation conviction, Sonko has denied the rape charge, saying he is the victim of a plot by President Macky Sall to torpedo his 2024 candidacy.

The government has denied the accusation and alleged Sonko has drummed up demonstrations to avoid justice.

Prosecutor General Ibrahima Bakhoum had called on the court to have Sonko arrested and jailed.

Sonko’s court sessions are often sources of tension and near-paralysis of traffic in the capital, as he usually travels to court with a procession of sympathisers.

The rape charge against Sonko in 2021 triggered riots in which at least 12 people were killed in the West African country, which is viewed as politically stable in a turbulent region.

Sall’s refusal to rule out running for a controversial third term as president – which his opponents say would be unconstitutional – has also increased political tensions.



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