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Senegalese react as opposition leader Sonko awaits verdict in rape trial

A Ziguinchor resident reacts after the trial of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko on rape charges were adjourned on May 24, 2023.   -  
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Cleared / AFP


In Ziguinchor, southern Senegal, the summing-up for the prosecution in Ousmane Sonko's rape trial were Wednesday’s hot topic.

The trial of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko on rape charges adjourned early Wednesday (May 24), with the prosecutor calling for a 10-year jail term in a case that has sparked tensions in the West African country since 2021.

Highly popular among young people, Sonko has branded the trial a political plot aimed at scuttling his bid for the 2024 presidency.

The public prosecutor called for a 10-year prison sentence for rape, or a minimum of a five-year term for "corrupting youth." 

Either sentence could bar him from contesting the elections.

Two Zinguinchor residents, the city that voted Sonko a mayor agreed to say the judicial saga was tiring.

"I see that this trial has been a farce from the beginning", a young man wearing sunglasses says.

"They did not respect any stage of the legal proceedings. Ousmane Sonko should not be convicted because he is innocent and they have no evidence against him. President Macky Sall has to stop this cabal against Ousmane Sonko, that’s the truth. We’re tired."

Another one is more restrained: "I don't support any side; it’s not to play politics, but I think it’s time to move on. It’s about time."

"I don’t know how to express it what, really, really, we’re really really really tired of this situation, they just have to help us, they just have to give up or I don’t know what but we want to move on."

A decision is expected to be handed down on June 1, the president of the criminal court said after the hearing concluded in the early hours.

Rape and death threats

The trial had resumed Tuesday (May 23) after a week-long suspension, but Sonko failed to show up for the second time.

The court rejected pleas by his lawyers for a new adjournment, prompting the attorneys to walk out.

Sonko, 48, has been charged with rape and making death threats against an employee of a beauty salon in Dakar, accusations that he denies.

He has said he went to the 'Sweet Beaute' salon for a massage for chronic back pain and denies any assault.

His co-accused, who also denies charges against her, is the salon's owner, Ndeye Khady Ndiaye.

The prosecution is calling for a five-year term against her for alleged complicity in rape, as well as a year for inciting debauchery and distributing offensive images.

Complainant Adji Sarr maintained her accusations in Tuesday's hearing, saying she had been abused five times by Sonko. She also said she had received death threats.

Judicial saga

The trial opened on May 16 but was immediately adjourned after Sonko failed to attend.

Saying he feared for his safety, Sonko had declared last week he would not appear in court without state guarantees for his personal safety.

He is believed to be in the southern city of Ziguinchor, several hundred kilometres (miles) from Dakar, where he is mayor.

His supporters there have surrounded his home to prevent any attempt to arrest him.

His lawyer, Cire Cledor Ly, told AFP by phone on Wednesday, "I am in Ziguinchor, close to my client," whom he described as "supremely calm" after the developments in court.

He gave no details as to the advice Sonko's attorneys would be giving for the future of the case.

Deadly clashes

Sonko, president of the PASTEF-Patriots party, came in third in the 2019 election against incumbent Macky Sall.

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.

When Sonko was arrested in 2021, several days of protests left at least 12 people dead.

Three other people died during clashes between Sonko supporters and police ahead of the start of proceedings on May 16.

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.

Sall was elected in 2012, when the presidential term was seven years, and re-elected in 2019, when the mandate was reduced to five years.

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