Senegal opposition party launches protest over leader’s trial

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Thousands of supporters of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko rallied in Dakar, the first of several days of protests as the country prepares for elections in less than a year.

Tensions are rising ahead of the vote in a country seen as a democratic mainstay in the region, amid speculation that President Macky Sall could bypass the constitution and seek a third presidential term.

The demonstration called by the Liberate the People coalition was the first authorised by authorities in recent months.

“In 2024, no one will be able to stop us from taking this country,” Sonko told his followers.

“I don’t believe in Macky Sall’s institutions because he himself doesn’t respect them,” he said, calling on his supporters to back him in big numbers at a court appearance on Thursday.

“I came to support Ousmane Sonko in his fight against injustice and corruption,” Mohamed Dia, a 32-year-old telecommunications technician, he said.

Sonko is expected in court Thursday after being sued by Tourism Minister Mame Mbaye Niang for “defamation, insult and forgery”. He accuses Sonko of defaming him in relation to his management of a community agriculture programme.

He also faces separate charges of rape and making death threats, based on a complaint by an employee at a beauty salon where he was getting a massage.

Sonko has denied the charges and accused authorities of trying to silence him and his party with arbitrary arrests and “the instrumentalisation of the justice system against opponents”.

Guilty verdicts could render Sonko ineligible to stand in the presidential vote set for February 2024.

The rally took place in a working-class district of the capital, with supporters chanting and dancing while sporting T-shirts, caps and shawls in the Senegalese colours of green, yellow and red.

Many business owners closed up shop, mindful of clashes and looting that broke out last month in the central city of Mbacke after a Sonko rally was banned.

The rape charge against Sonko in March 2021 had also sparked riots that caused around a dozen deaths.

“I came to attend this meeting so that we’ll see change. Macky Sall needs to leave Sonko alone,” said Mamadou Dione, a 48-year-old mason.

The opposition has accused authorities of systematically banning its demonstrations for months.

The government has denied any violation of political opponents’ rights.

“If there is no considerable risk, we authorise them,” government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana told journalists.

“But if there is a risk we don’t, because we have to balance the right to protest with the right to tranquillity, freedom of movement and the smooth functioning of institutions.”

Sonko, 48, has pledged Pan-African cooperation while taking aim at Senegal’s elites and alleged corruption, and also accuses former colonial power France and multinational firms of having excessive influence on the country’s economy and politics.

But in a statement Monday, the president’s Alliance for the Republic party accused Sonko and his Pastef party of embracing an “insurrectionary mindset”.

“Pastef and its leader are trying to flee justice through violence,” it said in a statement.

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