A court in Senegal sentenced the country’s leading opposition figure to two years in prison on Thursday after finding him guilty of “corrupting youth,” prompting scores of protesters to take to the streets, and clash with security forces, throughout the country.
The ruling, which for now bars him from running in future elections, throws the West African nation’s political future into uncertainty less than a year before its next presidential contest.
The opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was accused of raping a massage parlor’s employee in Dakar, the capital, and issuing death threats against her. The court acquitted him of those charges, which he had denied and denounced as an attempt by Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, to sideline him.
But the conviction in absentia of “corrupting youth” — a charge relating to an accusation that Mr. Sonko had a sexual relationship with the massage parlor worker, who was under 21 at the time — renders him ineligible to run in the election.
Mr. Sonko cannot appeal because he did not appear in court for the hearings or the verdict, citing threats to his safety. His fate remained unclear as of Thursday, but Ismaïla Madior Fall, Senegal’s justice minister, said he could be arrested at any time.
One of Mr. Sonko’s lawyers, Bamba Cissé, said in a phone interview that Mr. Sonko would not surrender “because we’re against a judiciary system perverted by political leaders.” He continued: “For two years, Senegal has been told that Mr. Sonko was involved in a rape affair. Today, we have the proof that it was a plot.”
Clashes erupted between protesters and security forces in Senegal’s largest cities. In Dakar, fires broke out in multiple neighborhoods and at the main university, where young demonstrators erected barricades and threw stones at the police, who responded with tear gas. In Rufisque, near the capital, a train station was burned down. Protests also broke out on the main highway leading to the capital; in Mbour, a major hub on Senegal’s coast; in Ziguinchor, the city where Mr. Sonko is the current mayor; and in other locations.
Senegal, a country of 17 million, has long been hailed as a model of political pluralism in West Africa, a region known for coups and aging leaders clinging to power. Elections have been mostly peaceful since the country became independent from France in 1960. The United States and European countries, as well as China, hold Senegal as one of their most reliable partners in West Africa. Mr. Sall was the chairman of the African Union last year, at a time of increased geopolitical competition on the continent.
Yet the battle around the political future of Mr. Sonko, 48, whose fiery rhetoric has made him popular among young Senegalese, has become the president’s biggest challenge. In the coming months, it could lead to the most serious test faced by Senegalese democracy in more than a decade, analysts say.
“Senegal finds itself in a thick fog, with lots of uncertainties,” said Alioune Tine, a rights expert and founder of the AfrikaJom Center, a Dakar-based research organization. “It has turned into a police state and, increasingly, an authoritarian one.”
There is no public proof that Mr. Sonko’s case has been politically motivated, but some academics, human rights observers and most opponents of Mr. Sall have raised questions about the lack of concrete evidence and the harsh treatment of Mr. Sonko throughout the proceedings. They have also in recent years warned of a steady erosion of democratic norms as several political opponents have been jailed and journalists arrested.
In recent months, police officers have been posted at traffic circles in Dakar; temporary bans on motorcycles to prevent quick gatherings of protesters have become a fixture in the capital; and demonstrators have faced a heavy-handed response from security forces, with clashes at times turning deadly. Protesters have also targeted the police, attacked gas stations and, this week, burned the house of Mr. Sall’s chief of staff.
Mr. Fall, the justice minister, told journalists after the verdict on Thursday that the judiciary system had remained independent throughout the proceedings. He justified the security forces’ heavy-handed response by the fact that Mr. Sonko had called for an insurrection.
Riot police officers were positioned near Mr. Sonko’s house in Dakar on Thursday, blocking access. Adama Ndiaye, a supporter of Mr. Sonko’s who unsuccessfully tried to approach his residence, said it was a bleak day for Senegal.
“The ‘corrupting youth’ charge comes out of nowhere; it’s pure injustice,” said Mr. Ndiaye, a 35-year-old car salesman who said he was on his way to a Dakar neighborhood where protests were taking place.
But opponents of Mr. Sall have accused his government of repeatedly sidelining key opposition leaders, including Mr. Sonko, who was barred by Senegal’s constitutional council from running in last year’s parliamentary elections. Dozens of members of his party have been jailed or placed under electronic surveillance. Current and former Dakar mayors were also prohibited from running in the 2019 presidential election because of convictions for embezzlement.
At a hearing last month, Mr. Sonko’s accuser said he had assaulted her five times at a massage parlor between late 2020 and February 2021, and had sent her death threats. The New York Times does not routinely name accusers in rape cases, but Mr. Sonko’s accuser, Adji Sarr, has been publicly identified and has given news interviews. She has been under police protection since 2021.
Gender-based violence has been decreasing in Senegal in recent years; it remains widespread, though rarely talked about. About 30 percent of women ages 15 to 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence, according to a demographic and health survey released in 2017, with the highest rate, 34 percent, among those ages 25 to 29. More than two-thirds never spoke about it or sought help.
Even as Ms. Sarr detailed last week the assaults she said she had faced, Senegalese newspapers published headlines with lewd innuendos, comparing her testimony to pornography.
Marième Cissé, an expert on gender issues, said Senegalese society still blamed victims of sexual violence. The Sonko trial, she added, gave many Senegalese the impression that a crime as serious as rape had been used for political purposes.
“That instrumentalization has minimized the seriousness of the accusation,” said Ms. Cissé, a researcher with the Dakar-based Wathi research organization. “It could discourage women from talking about the abuse they may face.”
Many Senegalese say they simply do not believe the accuser.
Moussa Sané, a 46-year-old businessman who attended the court session on Thursday, said that he was not a Sonko supporter but that the verdict showed the trial’s political motive. “The government is trying its best to prevent Sonko from running in the next election,” he said.
Until Thursday, Mr. Sonko had been widely regarded as Mr. Sall’s strongest challenger in the election, although Mr. Sall has not said whether he will run.
Most legal experts say the Senegalese Constitution prevents Mr. Sall from running: It limits presidents to two five-year terms, and Mr. Sall is set to complete his second in February. But he argues that a constitutional reform adopted in 2016 reset the clock to zero and gives him the right to seek another term.
“With Sonko convicted, Macky Sall has made him a political martyr,” said Mr. Tine, the rights expert. “And with this third-term issue, he has created another problem for himself.”
Mady Camara contributed reporting.