Senegal court deals blow to Sonko’s presidential hopes

By Diadie Ba

DAKAR (Reuters) -Senegal’s Supreme Court on Friday ruled against opposition politician Ousmane Sonko in his appeal of a libel conviction, dealing another blow to his hopes of competing in next month’s presidential election, lawyers said.

Sonko, 49, has been battling various court cases since 2021. These have hampered his plans to vie for the presidency in the Feb. 25 vote and fuelled unrest that has damaged Senegal’s reputation as one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.

After deliberations that extended from Thursday into the early hours of Friday, the court rejected Sonko’s appeal against a May conviction that led to him receiving a six-month suspended sentence for libel, lawyers involved in the case said.

According to Senegalese law, Sonko cannot compete in the presidential race while such a conviction is upheld.

“We have just recorded a great victory. The … sentence is upheld, so Ousmane Sonko will not be able to participate in the election,” the plaintiff’s lawyer El Hadji Diouf said on the radio.

Sonko’s legal team said the setback was not final. “The fight will continue,” his lawyer Cire Cledor Ly told reporters outside the court building in the capital Dakar.

There was no immediate sign of public protest in response to the ruling.

Sonko’s legal saga started when he was accused of rape in 2021, sparking deadly unrest across the country that has since flared up sporadically over various court decisions.

He denies any wrongdoing and says all charges against him are politically motivated. The government rejects this and accuses Sonko of stoking violence. It dissolved his Pastef party in July.

“No one doubts the political aspect of this affair which aims to eliminate the leader of the opposition,” said Pastef spokesperson El Malick Ndiaye, commenting on the latest ruling.

“Sonko still remains in the race,” he said on national radio.

After placing third in Senegal’s 2019 presidential election, Sonko is seen as a strong potential challenger in the race to succeed President Macky Sall, who is stepping down after two terms.

Sonko submitted his candidacy from custody last month after another court in the southern city of Zinguichor, where Sonko is mayor, ordered he be reinstated on the electoral register.

He had been struck off after he was arrested in July on insurrection charges. He has been in detention since then.

The electoral commission is reviewing applications and is scheduled to publish a final list of cleared presidential candidates by Jan. 20.

(Additional reporting by Portia Crowe; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Stephen Coates)