The trial of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko for alleged rape has been immediately adjourned for a week, after opening in his absence at a court in the capital, Dakar.
Sonko, who is also the mayor of the southern city of Ziguinchor, was charged based on a woman’s accusations that he assaulted her when she worked at a massage salon. The 48-year-old has denied the charges and has accused President Macky Sall of trying to prevent him from running in elections next year. The government denies this.
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“Sonko says he’s not attending court because his rights are not being respected,” Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque reported on Tuesday from outside the court. “He doesn’t believe in the autonomy of the judicial system.”
A spokesperson for the government told Al Jazeera the trial was a “private matter” between two individuals and it did not concern it.
If convicted, Sonko faces up to 10 years in prison and would be barred from running for president.
Protests erupted in Ziguinchor and the Dakar area on Monday, on the eve of Sonko’s scheduled court appearance. The interior ministry said a policeman died after being accidentally crushed by an armoured vehicle that had been deployed at demonstrations in Ziguinchor.
Crowds blocked roads with logs and burning tyres, throwing stones at police who responded with tear gas, according to reports.
Last week, Sonko, a former tax inspector, received a suspended six-month sentence for libel stemming from his accusations that the minister of tourism had embezzled funds, a charge the opposition leader denies.
The legal drama embroiling Sonko has spurred more than two years of tensions and sporadic unrest in Senegal as supporters – many of whom are disenfranchised urban youth – have heeded calls for protests that often spiral into violent clashes with security forces.
Haque said the trial has brought Senegal to a “standstill”, citing incidents of violence, schools shutting down, stores burning and motorcycles not being allowed on the road.
“This isn’t just a trial over a rape case,” he added. “For the opposition, the tribunal … is used by President Sall to clamp down on the opposition.”
The growing tensions raise the stakes ahead of next year’s election which could see Sall vie for a controversial third term, which the opposition says is unconstitutional.
Sall, 61, has neither confirmed nor denied that he plans to run, amid widespread speculation.
His opponents accuse him of seeking to weaken the competition with false accusations and political trials before the polls. The government denies this.
Hundreds rallied in Dakar last week in the latest show of protest against Sall’s potential bid for a third term.
Senegal’s new constitution, adopted in 2016, limits presidential terms to two five-year mandates. However, Sall told French newspaper L’Express in March that he could technically run because the new constitution reset the clock on his number of terms.