DAKAR, Senegal — Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Senegal's capital Tuesday in a peaceful show of support for the country's opposition leader who's facing trial later this week.
It was the first of several days of scheduled demonstrations backing Ousmane Sonko. The 46-year-old politician will go to court Thursday, after being charged in a civil lawsuit against him by Senegal’s tourism minister for alleged defamation and public insults.
The case stems from accusations Sonko made against the minister during a news conference late last year. He had claimed the tourism minister allegedly stole $47 million from a government agency.
Protesters gathered in Dakar's suburbs, shouting and chanting.
“We are here to support our leader, Ousmane Sonko. We will do everything to ensure that he is not imprisoned. He is not guilty of anything,” said Moustapha Diedhiou.
Sonko’s supporters see the charges against him as the latest attempt to cut short his political career, including his likely presidential candidacy in 2024. Sonko finished third in Senegal’s 2019 presidential election and has called on President Macky Sall to declare publicly that he won’t seek a third term.
The ruling party says Sall should be allowed to run after a constitutional change in 2016 —made while Sall was president — which changed presidential terms to five years.
Along with the defamation trial, Sonko also faces rape charges based on accusations from a female employee who said she was assaulted at a massage salon. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and would be barred from running for president. No date is set for the this trial.
Government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana maintained, in comments to The Associated Press, that Sonko is politicizing a legal problem between two citizens and that the government will ensure order at any cost.
In 2021, days of deadly protests erupted after Sonko was arrested for disturbing public order while on his way to the courthouse for a scheduled appearance in the rape case. At least 13 people died during the worst violence to rock Senegal in years.
With elections less than a year away, Sonko's supporters say they won't back down. “(The government's) objective is to prevent the candidacy of our leader in the next presidential election,” said Mamadou Fall. "We will not accept it,” he said.