At least nine people have died in clashes in Senegal that erupted after the country’s leading opposition politician was handed a two-year jail sentence that threatens his bid to run for president.
Unrest broke out in Dakar and the southern town of Ziguinchor after Ousmane Sonko, who serves as mayor of Ziguinchor, was acquitted on charges of rape and making death threats but convicted of “corrupting youth”.
The government has blocked access to social media services it said were being used to incite violence.
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“The state of Senegal has taken every measure to guarantee the safety of people and property,” interior minister Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome said on state television late on Thursday. “We are going to reinforce security everywhere in the country.”
A Dakar court had earlier cleared Sonko of rape after an employee of a massage parlour accused him of repeatedly assaulting her in 2021. The 48-year-old, who was not present at the hearing, was also cleared of making death threats against her.
But the court found him guilty of “corrupting youth”. One of his lawyers was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying this meant debauching or encouraging the debauchery of a person under the age of 21.
The protests erupted after Sonko’s African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity party urged his supporters to take to the streets following the verdict. Demonstrators in Dakar threw rocks and burned tyres, engulfing the city in black smoke, according to local media. Riot police responded by firing tear gas.
There were also reports of attacks on businesses, including French retail group Auchan and telecommunications company Orange. Protesters in Dakar looted the headquarters of Senelec, the state electricity company, and a Total gas station, while a university building was set on fire. The country’s national football team on Friday cancelled an announcement naming its squad because of the violence.
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Sonko had been set to challenge President Macky Sall in next February’s elections. However, under Senegal’s electoral law, those convicted of a criminal offence are barred from running for office.
Bamba Cisse, one of Sonko’s lawyers, said the politician could not launch an appeal because he did not attend court during the trial and sentencing. The government has said he can appeal once in custody, but it is unclear whether a warrant has been issued for his arrest.
Sonko and his supporters say he is the victim of a politically motivated prosecution designed to eliminate him from running against Sall. The president is barred from seeking a third term but his allies argue that a constitutional change in 2016 resets the clock on his tenure and allows him to contest the February 2024 election.