Nine people have died in clashes across Senegal, the interior minister said Friday, after a court sentenced firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko to two years in jail.
A conviction for "corrupting youth" may disqualify Sonko, President Macky Sall's fiercest opponent, from contesting next year's presidential election.
The case has deeply divided Senegal, sparking sporadic but deadly violence that has battered the country's image of stability.
After Thursday's verdict, clashes broke out between police and protesters, buses were set alight in the capital Dakar, and disturbances were reported elsewhere including the city of Ziguinchor, where Sonko has been mayor since 2022.
"We have noted with regret violence that has led to the destruction of public and private property and, unfortunately, nine deaths in Dakar and Ziguinchor," Interior Minister Antoine Diome said on national television.
Images of unrest elsewhere in Senegal circled on social networks. By JOHN WESSELS (AFP)
Two police officials told AFP on condition of anonymity that at least three of the deaths occurred at demonstrations in Ziguinchor, and a policeman was stoned to death by young protesters in the capital.
A former civil servant, Sonko rose to prominence in presidential elections in 2019, coming third after a campaign that took aim at Sall and the country's ruling elite.
He portrays Sall as corrupt and a would-be dictator, while the president's supporters call Sonko a rabble-rouser who has sown instability.
His initial arrest on rape charges in 2021 sparked several days of clashes that left at least 12 people dead.
The 48-year-old did not attend the trial and was absent when Thursday's judgement was handed down.
He was presumed to be at his Dakar home, where he had been blocked in by security forces after being detained at the weekend.
The court did not rule on whether he should be arrested. But after two years of a confrontation with the authorities, the head of the PASTEF-Patriots party could now be arrested "at any time", Justice Minister Ismaila Madior Fall told journalists.
When the Dakar criminal court handed down its verdict, Sonko's party called on the Senegalese people to "take to the streets".
A policeman fires a slingshot at demonstrators in Dakar. By JOHN WESSELS (AFP)
The university campus in Dakar was turned into something resembling a battlefield.
Groups of young people pelted police in riot gear with stones. Police fired back with tear gas.
Several buses from the faculty of medicine, the history department and the country's leading school of journalism were set on fire and offices ransacked. Classes were suspended until further notice.
Elsewhere, young protestors attacked a transport ticket office and other public property, burning tyres and placing obstacles in the streets.
Satire Mbaye, a presidential party official in the Dakar suburb of Keur Massar, said the party headquarters had been "ransacked".
Trouble was reported elsewhere in the West African state -- in Casamance in the south, Mbour and Kaolack in the west and St Louis in the north.
Several social media and messaging platforms including WhatsApp, Instagram and YouTube were facing serious access restrictions in Senegal late Thursday.
"This situation resembles what was observed during the 2021 protests and is likely to significantly limit the public's ability to communicate," said Netblocks, a global internet monitor.
On Friday interior minister Diome acknowledged the blockages, citing "the dissemination of hateful and subversive messages on social networks".
Attention has focused on whether, under the electoral code, Sonko's conviction will prevent him from contesting next year's vote.
"Ousmane Sonko's candidacy is in jeopardy," said Djiby Diagne, one of his lawyers.
"Corrupting youth" is defined as encouraging the "debauchery" of a young person under the age of 21.
A woman walks past a fire near police in Dakar. By GUY PETERSON (AFP)
The court 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, said Sonko had abused her on five occasions between late 2020 and early 2021.
She was under 21 at the time of the events.
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 beauty 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.
But 20 million CFA francs in damages is little for the suffering Sarr has endured, he said.
She has been threatened, insulted and placed under police protection since the scandal broke two years ago.