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Senegal opposition figure reiterates calls for protests over threat to candidacy

The opposition leader Ousmane Sonko greets his supporters after leaving the tribunal, in Dakar, Senegal, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023   -  
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Leo Correa/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.


Senegalese opposition figure Ousmane Sonko called on Tuesday for his supporters to take to the streets following a recent court ruling that threatens his candidacy in upcoming presidential elections.

Sonko had received a two-month suspended sentence and a hefty fine in March for defaming Tourism Minister Mame Mbaye Niang, with a Dakar appeals court on Monday upholding the fine and increasing the suspended term to six months, potentially making him ineligible for the vote.

He claims the judiciary is being used to sideline him, and his possible elimination would significantly alter the contest -- and could lead to violence from his supporters.

"What happened yesterday was a theatre play in which the roles were assigned," the firebrand politician said in a video address Tuesday evening.

"It in no way calls into question our plans." Sonko reiterated a call he has often made for civil disobedience and "resistance".

"I am now more than ever a candidate" for the February 2024 presidential election, he added.

"Only God can prevent my candidacy... No human being can prevent it."

- 'Only one opponent' -

Sonko asked his supporters to "stay on your feet and mobilise" -- and in particular to come out in large numbers on Friday.

"We have only one opponent, that of Senegal, (current President) Macky Sall," he said.

His address followed calls earlier on Tuesday by other leaders of his Yewwi Askan Wi coalition for protests on Friday and again on May 19.

"The people have to mobilise to support Ousmane Sonko in this fight," Khalifa Sall, one of the coalition chiefs, told a press conference.

Senegal is traditionally a beacon of stability in troubled West Africa, but in recent years has been buffeted by turbulence that has at times turned deadly.

Sonko, 48, came third in the 2019 election against Sall, but his candidacy this time around has been clouded by Monday's unfavourable appeal decision.

Sonko is also facing trial later this month for alleged rape and death threats over a complaint filed by an employee at a beauty salon where he went for a massage.

He says he is the victim of a government plot to scupper his candidacy.

The government has denied the accusation, with spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana saying Tuesday that "everyone is answerable before the law, whether an opponent, or in power, or a government minister".

The spokesman also said he saw no reason to ban the opposition protests, "as long as there is no risk of disturbing the peace".

- Doubts over president's plans -

In 2021, the rape charge against Sonko helped trigger riots that left at least 12 people dead.

The presidential party accuses him of seeking to paralyse the country and of drumming up anger on the streets in a bid to escape justice.

His appointments with the justice system are often sources of tension and near-paralysis of traffic in the capital Dakar, as he usually travels to court with a procession of sympathisers.

Political tensions have also been stoked by Sall's refusal to rule out running for a third term as president, a move his opponents say would be unconstitutional.

Khalifa Sall -- the former mayor of Dakar, who is not related to the head of state -- and former minister Karim Wade, the son of an ex-president, have also seen their political careers truncated by legal cases.

Both are prominent opponents of the current president.

Dethie Fall, another Yewwi Askan Wi figure, called for a march on May 19 against a "campaign to liquidate Ousmane Sonko".

He said that not to act "would be to let democracy be transformed into a monarchy and dictatorship by President Macky Sall, who has only one idea in mind, the third mandate".

The decision against Sonko on Monday caused sporadic unrest in Dakar and elsewhere.

However, opposition calls for demonstrations have had a limited response in recent months.

Authorities, meanwhile, have banned numerous rallies and deployed significant police resources.

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