Presidential race setback for Senegal opposition leader after court rulings

Constitutional Council rejects Ousmane Sonko’s presidential candidate application after Supreme Court upholds defamation conviction.

Senegal protests
Police officers stand guard as supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko protest in front of a court in Dakar, Senegal [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

Senegal’s top opposition leader has suffered major setbacks in his quest to contest the presidency after the Supreme Court upheld a defamation conviction against him and the Constitutional Council later rejected his application to be a presidential candidate.

Ousmane Sonko’s lawyer, Cire Cledor Ly, said on Friday that his candidacy had been rejected on grounds that the application was incomplete.

Sonko’s application case at the council was “examined without his representative [in] a flagrant violation of the law” before it was rejected, Ly told reporters. “From the outset, the government has shown its willingness to invalidate Ousmane Sonko’s candidacy.”

Ly slammed the Council’s decision as an “electoral farce” and suggested he would lodge “the appeals provided for by law”.

Sonko’s party television said the file was incomplete because it lacked a certificate from the CDC deposit bank, where a cheque for 30 million CFA francs (about $50,000) must be deposited to run in the election.

The council’s decision came hours after the Supreme Court rejected the jailed opposition leader’s appeal of his conviction for defamation after being sued by a government minister.

The trial was seen as the latest twist in a prolonged legal battle involving several charges which the opposition leader has alleged is to stop his presidential bid in the February elections.

“The sentence and fines have been confirmed. Sonko lost on all counts,” state lawyer El Hadji Diouf said earlier on Friday after the Supreme Court judge ruled to uphold the six-month suspended sentence following a more-than-12-hour hearing.

Multiple court cases

Sonko has been in jail since July after his arrest on insurrection charges, when he was also struck off the country’s electoral rolls.

He has faced multiple court cases over the past two years for charges including libel and rape, which he has denied. The cases against him have triggered deadly violence in the West African nation.

After deliberations that extended from Thursday into the early hours of Friday, the Supreme Court rejected Sonko’s appeal against the May conviction. According to Senegalese law, he cannot compete in the presidential race while such a conviction is upheld.

Sonko’s legal troubles began when he was accused of rape in 2021, sparking deadly unrest across the country that has since flared up sporadically over various court decisions.

He has denied any wrongdoing and says all charges against him are politically motivated. The government, which accused Sonko of stoking violence, dissolved his Patriots of Senegal (PASTEF) party in July.

“No one doubts the political aspect of this affair which aims to eliminate the leader of the opposition,” said PASTEF spokesperson El Malick Ndiaye on the latest ruling. “Sonko still remains in the race,” he said on national radio.

Sonko placed third in Senegal’s 2019 presidential election and is popular with the country’s youth. His supporters maintain the charges against him are part of a government effort to derail his candidacy in this year’s polls.

He was seen as a main opposition challenger in the race to succeed President Macky Sall, who announced in July that he would not seek a controversial third mandate following months of ambiguity and speculation about his intentions.

In December, a court in the southern city of Zinguichor, where Sonko is mayor, ordered that he be reinstated on the electoral register.

The electoral commission is reviewing applications and is scheduled to publish a final list of cleared presidential candidates by January 20.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies