Senegal opposition leader in court after clashes

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Malick Rokhy Ba and Laurent Lozano
·3 min read
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Senegal opposition leader Ousmane Sonko appeared in court on Friday after his arrest sparked two days of clashes that killed at least one person.

Government buildings in Dakar were under tight security before Sonko's court hearing following some of the worst violence in years in a West African country long seen as a beacon of stability.

Hefty police deployments were in place around the law courts, presidential palace and National Assembly in central Dakar on Friday, an AFP reporter at the scene said.

"Ousmane Sonko is in the office of the chief judge," one of his lawyers Abdoulaye Tall told journalists outside the courthouse.

Supporters of Sonko, a former presidential candidate who is seen as a key challenger to President Macky Sall, have called for fresh protests to coincide with a hearing.

Clashes broke out on Wednesday between Sonko's supporters and police as he made his way to court to face rape accusations against him -- allegations that he denies.

Sonko was detained on Wednesday on charges of disturbing public order as his motorcade, followed by hundreds of supporters, made its way to the initial hearing.

One person died in the southern town of Bignona on Thursday, the police said, during clashes there.

A local official in Yeumbeul in the Dakar suburbs said that a second person there had died, and social media said the individual was a teenager. This account was not immediately confirmed by the authorities.

Protesters attacked the offices of the government daily Le Soleil and RFM radio station, which belongs to a press group owned by singer and former minister Youssou Ndour. Both media outlets are deemed pro-government.

Stores of a French supermarket chain were also attacked and French schools in Dakar were closed on Friday.

- Popular firebrand -

Sonko, a 46-year-old devout Muslim and firebrand speaker popular with the young, is leader of the opposition Pastef party and a former presidential candidate who came in third in the 2019 elections.

His political future was suddenly clouded last month when rape charges were filed against him by an employee at a salon where, he said, he went to receive back massages.

He denies the accusations and accuses Sall of conspiring to sideline him from politics.

The government late Thursday hit out at "acts of violence, looting and destruction" of property and warned it would take "all necessary measures to maintain public order."

It also warned "certain media" against pursuing what it called "tendentious" coverage of events.

The regulatory authorities suspended two local television channels, Sen TV and Walf TV, for 72 hours, accusing them of relentlessly broadcasting images of the unrest.

In a statement, Amnesty International called on the Senegalese authorities "to immediately halt arbitrary arrests of opponents and activists, respect freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression."

It also urged the authorities to "shed light on the presence of men armed with clubs next to the security forces."

Netblocks, an organisation that monitors disruption to the Internet, said social media and messaging applications, including Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp, had been affected by restrictions.

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