Senegal braces as opposition leader's rape trial verdict looms
DAKAR, June 1, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - The Senegalese capital Dakar braced for potential clashes on Thursday as a court prepared to issue a verdict in the trial of firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko on rape charges.
The two-year case has deeply polarised the West African country with a reputation for tolerance and stability, igniting accusations of political meddling in the judiciary and sparking violent confrontations between Sonko's supporters and the security forces.
Sonko, the 48-year-old leader of the PASTEF-Patriots party, has leapt to national prominence on the back of attacks against President Macky Sall.
Throwing down the gauntlet, he declared Tuesday that he was being "illegally held" after security forces swooped on his motorcade at the weekend, urging the public to take to the streets.
"Everyone should rise up as one," he said on social media. "Power should remain with the people."
When Sonko was arrested on the charges in 2021, several days of clashes left at least 12 people dead.
Several more have died in sporadic violence this year, including a fatality that occurred at the weekend when police detained Sonko ahead of Thursday's hearing.
Sall promised to stand firm in the face of potential violence while calling for a "national dialogue" to ease the tensions.
At the heart of the trial are allegations by 23-year-old beauty salon worker Adji Sarr, who accuses Sonko of raping her and making death threats.
Sonko denies any wrongdoing, saying that he went to the salon for a massage for chronic back pain and that the case against him is politically motivated.
Conviction for rape in Senegal carries a jail term of 10 to 20 years, a sentence that would bar Sonko from running in next year's presidential election.
Sonko surged to national prominence in the 2019, when he came third in the presidential elections after a feisty campaign against Sall and a perceived corrupt elite.
The aftermath of a guilty verdict against Sonko remains unclear.
It is not known whether Sonko would be arrested immediately if convicted, or whether he would be able to mobilise crowds to protest such a verdict.
The "dialogue" announced by Sall has driven a wedge into the opposition front, with Sonko saying he would boycott such a meeting while Khalifa Sall, another opposition candidate, has said he will attend.
- 'Dictatorship' -
Sonko accuses Sall of plotting a third term in office in defiance of the constitution in order to install a "dictatorship."
He also rails against France, the former colonial power, while presenting himself as a defender of religion and traditional values as a father of six and husband of two wives, calling for example for tougher penalties against same-sex relations.
Sall's supporters say Sonko is a rabble-rouser who has poisoned the political climate and sown instability.
The trial, whose first two hearings were boycotted by Sonko, has riveted and divided the public in the conservative Muslim country.
Media outlets have focused overwhelmingly on the trial's political consequences and salacious elements in Sarr's testimony, to the dismay of some feminists.
They accuse Sonko of using language that normalises sexual violence and denigrates his accuser.
"If I wanted to rape a woman, I wouldn't choose a brain-damaged monkey," he has said.