DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Senegal’s top opposition leader has been given a two-month suspended sentence after being found guilty of libel.
Ousmane Sonko on Thursday was convicted of spreading false statements and will also have to pay about $330,000 to Minister of Tourism Mame Mbaye Niang, who accused the politician of defamation and public insults.
“This is a historic day for Senegal. Many had said that the trial would not take place, but it did. This is a victory,” the Cabinet minister’s lawyer El-hadji Diouf told reporters in Senegal’s capital, Dakar.
The case stems from accusations that Sonko, 48, made against the tourism minister during a news conference late last year. He had alleged the minister stole $47 million from a government agency.
Security was tight around the courtroom Thursday, as small groups of people gathered in support of Sonko. Sonko was not present at the hearing. His lawyers had requested to postpone the trial, saying that Sonko was sick from tear gas fired earlier this month.
Sonko’s party called the verdict unjust.
“The verdict is abnormal … they decided to force it but they know that it’s not normal,” El Malick Ndiaye, national secretary in charge of communication for Sonko’s Pastef Les Patriotes party, told The Associated Press. Ndiaye said he was not sure if Sonko would appeal the verdict and said that Sonko was meeting with his lawyers to discuss options.
Sonko’s supporters see the charges against him as the latest attempt to cut short his political career, including his likely presidential candidacy in 2024. Sonko finished third in Senegal’s 2019 presidential election and has called on President Macky Sall to declare publicly that he won’t seek a third term.
The ruling party says Sall should be allowed to run after a constitutional change in 2016 — made while Sall was president — which changed presidential terms to five years.
Along with the defamation trial, Sonko also faces rape charges based on accusations from a female employee who said she was assaulted by him at a massage salon. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and would be barred from running for president. No date is set for the that trial.
Thursday’s conviction won’t impact Sonko’s ability to run for president, as defamation is not included in the electoral code as one of the reasons that would bar someone from running.