Violence erupted in Senegal's capital Dakar on Thursday after a court sentenced firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko to two years' jail for "corrupting youth," a move that darkens his hopes of contesting presidential elections next year.
Groups of young people attacked buses, a transport ticket office and other public property in parts of the city, burning tyres and placing obstacles in the streets, an AFP photographer saw.
Clashes broke out between the young people and security forces, with stones and tear gas being thrown.
Images of unrest elsewhere in the country circulated on social networks.
Satire Mbaye, a presidential party official in the Dakar suburb of Keur Massar, said the party headquarters had been "ransacked."
Violence broke out in parts of Senegal's capital after a court sentenced opposition leader Ousmane Sonko to two years' imprisonment. By JOHN WESSELS (AFP)
"They broke the windows and destroyed the equipment inside", she said. "They asked where was the house of Assome Diatta, the party's local leader".
The motorway leading to the airport was cut off by demonstrators, according to local media, while a commuter train connecting the new city of Diamniadio to the capital halted service.
The violence came hours after a ruling by a Dakar criminal court against Sonko, President Macky Sall's fiercest opponent.
The two-year-old case deeply divided the West African state, sparking sporadic but deadly clashes that have battered the country's image of stability.
Attention has focused on whether a conviction would prevent Sonko, 48-year-old head of the PASTEF-Patriots party, from contesting next year's vote.
The court convicted him of "corrupting youth", which consists of encouraging the "debauchery" of a young person under the age of 21.
The ruling appears to threaten Sonko's eligibility for next year's presidential election. By GUY PETERSON (AFP)
But it acquitted him on charges of rape and issuing death threats.
The complainant, Adji Sarr, a former employee of the beauty salon where Sonko used to get massages, was under 21 at the time of the events.
The verdict sparked noisy demonstrations of disapproval in the courtroom, which was heavily protected by police, although it was not clear whether they were by supporters of the plaintiff or of Sonko.
Sarr left the courtroom without speaking.
She has been threatened, insulted and placed under police protection since the scandal broke two years ago.
Youth following: Sonko pictured in July 2022 in the southern city of Ziguinchor, where he is mayor. By MUHAMADOU BITTAYE (AFP/File)
During proceedings, she said Sonko had abused her on five occasions between late 2020 and early 2021.
Sonko has maintained his innocence and claims the president is manipulating the judiciary to torpedo his political career -- a charge the government denies.
Ndeye Khady Ndiaye, the owner of the salon, was also sentenced to two years in prison for incitement to debauchery, but acquitted of complicity in rape.
She and Sonko must each pay a fine of 600,000 CFA francs ($980) and jointly pay 20 million CFA francs ($33,000) in damages to the complainant.
"We are satisfied of Sonko's guilt", El Hadji Diouf, Adji Sarr's lawyer, told reporters.
Senegal. By Jonathan WALTER (AFP)
But 20 million FCFA in damages is little for the "suffering" Sarr has endured, he said.
The ruling appears to threaten the politician's eligibility for next year's presidential election under the electoral code.
One of his lawyers, Djiby Diagne, said "Ousmane's Sonko's candidacy is in jeopardy."
The court did not rule on whether he should be arrested.
"The decision to arrest him or not depends on the public prosecutor," Diagne said.
"Let all Senegalese know: Ousmane Sonko can no longer be a candidate", said another of his lawyers, Bamba Cisse.
A former civil servant, Sonko rose to prominence in presidential elections in 2019, where he came in third after a campaign that dealt verbal blows to Sall and the country's ruling elite.
Sonko portrays Sall as corrupt and a would-be dictator, while the president's supporters call him a rabble-rouser who has sown instability.
His ascent and details given by Sarr in her testimony have both riveted and divided the public in this conservative Muslim country.
Security forces prevented reporters and Sonko's supporters from approaching his house, throwing tear gas directly at a group of journalists. By SEYLLOU (AFP)
His initial arrest on rape charges in 2021 sparked several days of clashes that left at least 12 people dead.
Sonko was not in court for the verdict. He was presumed to be at his Dakar home, where he had been blocked in by security forces after being detained at the weekend.
Security forces prevented journalists and Sonko's lawyers and supporters from approaching the house, throwing tear gas without warning at a group of reporters, including an AFP journalist.
Sonko's electoral eligibility was already overshadowed by an earlier court battle.
He was handed six-month suspended prison sentence this year for defamation against a minister.