Senegal: Protests escalate after rape charge
SENEGALESE police fired tear gas at protesters outside a courthouse in the capital on Friday, where an opposition leader made his first court appearance since his arrest triggered two days of demonstrations across the country.
A lawyer for Ousmane Sonko said he was being charged with rape and making threats.
Sonko, a 46-year-old tax inspector with a strong following among the youth, has denied wrongdoing and says accusations against him are part of a pattern by the authorities of using criminal charges to block opponents from standing in elections.
Since his arrest on Wednesday, his supporters have clashed with riot police, with at least one person reported killed.
Authorities have responded by curbing access to the internet and suspending broadcasting by two private TV channels that covered the protests. On Friday they also banned motorcycles and mopeds, popular among Sonko’s young political base, from the streets of the capital.
Internet monitor NetBlocks said social media and messaging apps including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Youtube were restricted early on Friday. Bracing for violence, some schools and shops were shut.
Police in full protective gear guarded the courthouse in Dakar as Sonko appeared before a judge. The hearing will continue on Monday.
“I don’t think things will be calm. People are rising up,” said 24-year-old fashion worker Souleymane Diallo, who said a pandemic-linked curfew and general dissatisfaction with President Macky Sall was also fuelling public anger.
The police later fired tear gas at protesters who had set up barricades on side streets near the court.
An employee of a beauty salon accused Sonko last month of raping her. He says the case was trumped up to undermine him. Parliament stripped him of his immunity as a lawmaker last week.
The 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.
Other rivals have been targeted by criminal charges in the past, including former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, eliminating them from the 2019 presidential race.
The government denies political motivations behind the case. Sall, 59, in power since 2012, has not commented on reports he might seek a third term despite a constitutional two-term limit.
Rights Group Amnesty International expressed concern over the authorities’ handling of the situation, citing a wave of arrests, the use of live weapons and the suspension of the broadcasters.
“We call on the Senegalese authorities to respect the freedom of peaceful assembly throughout the country,” Amnesty’s regional director Samira Daoud in a statement.