Senegal opposition politician handed light sentence, still viable for presidency

By Diadie Ba

DAKAR (Reuters) -Senegal’s leading opposition politician and presidential aspirant Ousmane Sonko on Thursday received a two-month suspended prison sentence for libel in a case involving the tourism minister, the minister’s lawyer El Hadji Diouf said.

The sentence will not prevent him from running in elections next year – an apparent effort by authorities to defuse a stand-off with his supporters, who have repeatedly taken to the streets to denounce what they say is a politically motivated campaign.

“It is a verdict of appeasement,” said another lawyer also representing the tourism minister, Pierre-Olivier Sur.

“The sentence is moderate to the extent that it does not remove his (Sonko’s) civil and political liberties and the right to remain in the political debate.”

In a statement, Sonko’s party, Pastef, dismissed the court proceedings as a “show trial”.

Sonko, 48, had been charged with libel for accusing the tourism minister of embezzlement. He denied wrongdoing and previously said the charges against him were a tactic to eliminate him from the presidential race. The government denies this accusation.

In addition to the suspended sentence, Sonko was ordered to pay 200 million CFA francs ($332,000), Diouf told Reuters.

The libel trial, and another separate case in which Sonko is charged with sexual abuse, have spurred violent protests across the country. Sonko has also denied wrongdoing in the sexual abuse case.

He called for nationwide protests on Wednesday and Thursday – the day the libel case was set to resume – as well as on April 3.

These sporadic, sometimes violent demonstrations have taken place over the past two years in support of Sonko, who has become the focus of anger at President Macky Sall’s failure to rule out running for a third term in elections next year.

Particularly violent and deadly protests broke out over the sexual abuse case in 2021, shaking the usually peaceful West African nation.

Authorities have since banned most planned protests in Dakar and dispersed gatherings with tear gas and stun grenades, including the latest on Wednesday.

Sonko and his supporters say Sall, 61, is using the trials to eliminate competition ahead of the polls.

Some of the president’ other opponents faced judicial proceedings in the run-up to the last election in 2019 and were unable to run against him as a result.

Sonko, who came third in 2019, has clout among Senegal’s disenfranchised urban youth, frustrated by joblessness and poor economic prospects.

Anger has also risen around fears Sall will use a recent change to the constitution to reset his mandate, which ends in 2024, allowing him to run for a third term.

Sall has avoided all questions about this, neither confirming nor denying the claim.

($1 = 602.0000 CFA francs)

(Reporting by Diadie Ba; Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by James Macharia Chege, Alessandra Prentice, William Maclean and Sonali Paul)