Widespread protests, riots, burning of vehicles and stoning of government properties have been reported in many regions of Senegal including the capital, Dakar, after opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, was sentenced to two years in jail for “corrupting youth”, undermining his chances of running for president next year.
Sonko, 48, was accused of raping a woman who worked in a massage parlour in 2021, when she was 20, and making death threats against her. He denies wrongdoing and said the charges were politically motivated.
On Thursday a criminal court cleared him of rape, but found him guilty of a separate criminal offence described in the penal code as immoral behaviour towards individuals younger than 21.
This could prevent him from participating in February elections, according to Senegal’s electoral law.
“With this sentence Sonko cannot be a candidate,” said one of his lawyers, Bamba Cissé.
University law professor Ndiack Fall said Sonko could demand a re-trial if he gives himself in to authorities.
The rape case has triggered violent protests in Senegal since 2021. Sonko’s supporters denounced the charges as a ploy to prevent him from running in next year’s election. The government and the justice system deny this.
Sonko’s Pastef party said the verdict was part of a political plot and called on citizens to take to the streets.
Violence erupted at a central university campus, where protesters set a car alight and threw rocks at riot police, who responded by firing tear gas. Similar situations were reported in Kaolack, Sonko’s native Casamance and other regions.
Separately, Sonko is appealing against a six-month suspended prison sentence for libel. The implications of that case for his presidential bid are not yet clear.