A Senegalese court acquitted senior opposition politician Ousmane Sonko of rape and issuing death threats on Thursday, but sentenced him to two years in prison for corrupting youth, jeopardizing his hopes of standing for president next year.
Sonko, 48, was accused of raping and threatening a woman who worked in a massage parlor in 2021. He denies any guilt and has refused to appear in court.
“With this sentence Sonko cannot be a candidate,” said one of his lawyers, Bamba Cisse. Senegal’s electoral code prevents individuals convicted of a crime from seeking political office.
The case has triggered violent street protests in the West African country with Sonko’s supporters denouncing the charges against him as politically motivated, which the government and the justice system deny.
Corrupting youth is a criminal offence in Senegal, described in the penal code as immoral behaviour towards individuals younger than 21. Sonko’s accuser was 20 at the time of the events she alleged took place.
“It is still an abuse towards a young girl,” said one of her lawyers, El Hadj Diouf, adding he was satisfied with the verdict. His client will decide whether to appeal against the acquittals, he said.
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.
A former tax inspector who came third in the last election, Sonko has tapped into frustrations with President Macky Sall that have grown since he was first elected in 2012.
Critics say Sall has failed to create jobs and has stifled opposition criticism amid rumours he may seek to bypass presidential term limits and run again next year. Sall has neither confirmed nor denied this.
Sonko has garnered strong support among disaffected urban youth, many of whom have responded to his calls to take to the streets to protest against his judicial problems, prompting riot police crackdowns that have led to deaths.
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.
Sall on Wednesday said he would not stand idle in the face of “certain actors who have chosen to destroy the country”.
“Those who shoot and kill are not our security forces,” he said after promising free and transparent elections.