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Radio France Internationale
Radio France Internationale
Melissa Chemam with RFI

Senegal's opposition leader Ousmane Sonko sentenced to 2 years in prison

Ousmane Sonko, mayor of Ziguinchor, at a rally of the Senegalese opposition in Dakar, on June 8, 2022. © SEYLLOU / AFP

Ousmane Sonko, a prominent opposition candidate in Senegal's 2024 presidential election, has been sentenced to prison on charges of "corrupting youth", in a case he maintains is intended to stop him running.

A court in Dakar sentenced Sonko to two years' imprisonment for the offence, but acquitted him of other charges of rape and issuing death threats.

The verdict was announced on Thursday morning at Darkar's main courthouse, following the trial on 23 May.

Sonko was not present at either.

The case, which Sonko's supporters maintain is politically motivated, has deeply divided Senegal and sparked repeated protests.

Controversial case

Sonko, 48, was accused of raping and threatening a woman who worked at a beauty salon in Dakar. The woman, 20, said she had been abused five times by the politician.

Sonko claimed she was a "young girl who has been manipulated, promised a diplomatic passport and exile abroad, as well as large sums of money".

If he had been convicted of rape in absentia, Sonko would have been stripped of his electoral rights.

"Corrupting youth" – debauching or encouraging the debauchery of a person under the age of 21 – is a lesser offence than rape, lawyer Ousmane Thiam told AFP news agency.

But his conviction still threatens to rule him out of next year's vote.

"With this two-year sentence, Ousmane Sonko cannot be a candidate in the 2024 presidential election – it is a sentence of ineligibility," one of his lawyers, Bamba Cissé, told journalists outside the courtroom.

Arrest and unrest

Sonko's Pastef party called the verdict the "ultimate step in [President] Macky Sall's plot against Sonko", who they consider to be the main rival to the incumbent.

In a statement, the party called on its supporters to "stay mobilised", as tensions rose in Dakar and Sonko's stronghold of Ziguinchor, in the Casamance region.

Senegalese police at the entrance to the Dakar courthouse where the sentencing of Ousmane Sonko was held on June 1, 2023. © SEYLLOU / AFP

Another presidential candidate, former prime minister Idrissa Seck, told RFI that he “trusted the Senegalese justice system to handle the trial”, while encouraging Sall not to run for president again next year.

The court also sentenced Sonko's co-accused, Ndeye Khady Ndiaye, the owner of the beauty salon where Sonko was accused of repeated abuse, to two years' imprisonment.

The public prosecutor must now decide whether to order Sonko's arrest.

Sonko was temporarily detained on Sunday while leading supporters on a march from Zighinchor towards the capital.

Opposition leader Ousmane Sonko during a meeting in Ziguinchor on May 24, 2023. © MUHAMADOU BITTAYE / AFP

He complained of being "kidnapped" by the security forces, which the government denied.

    Interior Minister Antoine Diome, speaking on Senegal's public broadcaster RTS, said that Sonko had not been arrested but rather "dropped off" at his home in Dakar, to avoid more unrest among his supporters.

    He added that Sonko should have requested authorisation before organising his "freedom caravan".

    Rebels in Casamance, a region geographically separated from the rest of Senegal by the Gambia, have been seeking regional independence for more than 35 years.

    Sonko is mayor of Ziguinchor, the capital of the region.

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