Senegal top court rejects opposition leader Sonko’s appeal in libel case

Senegal’s Supreme Court has ruled against opposition politician Ousmane Sonko’s appeal in his defamation conviction, a decision that puts his chances of running in presidential elections at risk.

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

He added that Sonko was “now totally banned from taking part in an election”. The 49-year-old had filed his candidacy papers last month, while in custody, to compete in the February 25 elections.

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 denies. 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 court rejected Sonko’s appeal against the May conviction. According to Senegalese law, Sonko cannot compete in the presidential race while such a conviction is upheld.

His legal team, however, said the setback was not final. “The fight will continue,” his lawyer Cire Cledor Ly told reporters outside the court building in the capital, Dakar.

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 denies any wrongdoing and says all charges against him are politically motivated. The government, which accuses 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 is 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.

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