At least nine people were killed in Senegal in clashes between riot police and supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko following a court sentencing him to two years in jail, the country’s interior ministry said.
Clashes broke out after Thursday’s verdict, which may disqualify Sonko, President Macky Sall’s fiercest opponent, from contesting next year’s presidential election.
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Cars and buses were set alight in the capital Dakar and disturbances were reported elsewhere, including the city of Ziguinchor, where Sonko has been mayor since 2022.
“We have noted, with regret, violence that has led to the destruction of public and private property and, unfortunately, nine deaths in Dakar and Ziguinchor,” Interior Minister Antoine Diome said on national television on Friday.
Sonko, 48, did not attend the hearing over an alleged sexual assault where he 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 denied wrongdoing and said the charges were politically motivated.
The court cleared Sonko of rape but found him guilty of a separate offence described in the penal code as immoral behaviour towards individuals younger than 21.
The justice ministry said the opposition leader could now be taken to prison at any time.
Police remained stationed around his home in Dakar as unrest flared in the capital and elsewhere after the verdict.
“With this sentence, Sonko cannot be a candidate,” said one of the opposition leader’s lawyers, Bamba Ciss, citing Senegal’s electoral law.
Sonko’s PASTEF party said the verdict was part of a political plot and called on citizens in a statement to “stop all activity and take to the streets”.
A former civil servant, Sonko rose to prominence in presidential elections in 2019, coming third after a campaign that took aim at President Sall and the country’s ruling elite. He portrays Sall as corrupt and a would-be dictator, while the president’s supporters call Sonko a rabble-rouser who has sown instability. His initial arrest on rape charges in 2021 sparked several days of clashes that left at least 12 people dead.
On Thursday, thick black smoke billowed from a central university campus in Dakar, where protesters set several buses alight in the afternoon and threw rocks at riot police who responded by firing tear gas.
Government spokesperson Abdou Karim Fofana said security forces had the situation under control in the capital.
Several social media and messaging platforms were restricted in Senegal later in the evening – a move “likely to significantly impact the public’s ability to communicate”, the NetBlocks internet observatory said.
University law professor Ndiack Fall said Sonko could demand a retrial if he turns himself in to authorities. But Sonko’s supporters have denounced the charges as a ploy to prevent him from running in elections scheduled for February. The government and the justice system deny this.
Demonstrations are not uncommon in Senegal and typically increase around elections. But Sall’s second term has been particularly turbulent for a country usually viewed as one of West Africa’s strongest democracies.
Separately, Sonko is appealing against a six-month suspended prison sentence for libel – an offence he also denies.