The trial of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko on rape charges adjourned early Wednesday, with the prosecution calling for a 10-year jail term in a case that has sparked tensions in the West African country.
A popular figure among Senegal’s huge population of young people, Sonko has branded the trial a political plot aimed at scuttling his bid for the 2024 presidency.
Public prosecutor Abdou Karim Diop called for a 10-year prison sentence for rape, or a minimum of a five-year term for “corrupting youth.”
Either sentence would legally bar him from contesting the elections.
A decision is expected to be handed down on June 1, the president of the criminal court said after the marathon 17-hour session wound up.
The trial had resumed Tuesday 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 between 2020 and early 2021. She also said she had received death threats if she went public with her accusations.
The conservative nation has been avidly following the case, which on Wednesday served up a string of salacious details.
They included exchanges on the plaintiff’s virginity, tests of sperm samples taken from her, and the types of massage offered by the salon, which apparently continued its business despite a curfew imposed during the Covid pandemic.
– Trial no-show –
The trial opened on May 16 but was immediately adjourned after Sonko failed to attend.
Sonko declared last Friday that he feared being attacked and would not appear without state guarantees for his 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 telephone 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.
Ziguinchor residents were divided over the trial.
Pensioner Amadou Badji, 75, said President Macky Sall had been targeting Sonko for the past five years “simply because he raises hope.”
“I’ve not seen such goings-on since Senegal gained independence.”
But 33-year-old coffee seller Algassim Diallo said people were “fed up” with the case.
“The country has been taken hostage for the past two years by a tale about rapes. Everything has slowed down — traders, drivers, everyone is complaining. It’s time to move on,” he said.
– Deadly clashes –
Sonko, president of the PASTEF-Patriots party, came in third in the 2019 election against incumbent Macky Sall.
He is especially popular among people aged under 20, who comprise half of Senegal’s booming population.
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.
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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