Protests intensify as Senegalese opposition leader faces rape charge in court

DAKAR – Senegalese police clashed with protesters in several districts of the capital Dakar on Friday, including in front of a courthouse where an opposition leader appeared for the first time since his arrest for rape.

A lawyer for Ousmane Sonko said he had been charged with rape and threats. These allegations have led to clashes between his stone-throwing supporters and police in several cities since his arrest on Wednesday.

Four people were killed in the violence, said Senegal’s Interior Minister Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome, who aired on national television on Friday and described the protests as an “organized insurrection”.

Sonko, a 46-year-old tax inspector with a strong following among young people, has denied wrongdoing, saying allegations are part of a pattern for authorities to file criminal charges to prevent opponents from voting.

On Friday in Dakar, protesters threw stones and other objects at security guards, erected street barricades, and burned tires and debris, while police fired tear gas and stunt grenades to remove them.

The authorities responded by restricting internet access and stopping two private television channels covering the protests. On Friday, they also banned motorbikes and mopeds, popular with Sonko’s young political base, from the streets of the capital.

The Internet monitor NetBlocks announced that social media and messaging apps like Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube were restricted early Friday. Some schools and shops were closed and closed because of violence.

The police in full protective gear were guarding the courthouse when Sonko appeared before a judge. The hearing will continue on Monday.

The representative of the United Nations in the region Mohamed Ibn Chambas issued a statement on Friday calling for restraint and calm and called on the Senegalese government to “take the necessary measures to reduce tensions”.

A resident said a coronavirus pandemic-related curfew and general dissatisfaction with President Macky Sall had also fueled public anger.

“I don’t think things will get quiet. People are getting up,” said 24-year-old fashion worker Souleymane Diallo.

The Home Secretary said the government’s plans would soon ease coronavirus restrictions as the West African nation started vaccinating against Covid-19 last week.

A beauty salon employee accused Sonko of raping her last month. Parliament stripped Sonko of his legislative immunity last week.

Opposition fears the case is an attempt by Sall to remove a potentially popular rival if he decides to seek a third term in 2024.

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Other rivals have been prosecuted in the past, including former Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade.

The government denies the political reasons for the fall. Sall, 59, who has been in power since 2012, has not commented on reports suggesting that he could seek a third term despite being constitutionally limited to two terms.

Amnesty International expressed concern about the authorities’ handling of the situation, citing a wave of arrests, the use of live weapons and the suspension of broadcasters.

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