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23.04.2019 Senegal

Trial starts in Senegal of cleric accused in double killing

File picture of Thioune's supporters, called 'Thiantacounes,' protesting outside a Dakar prison in October 2012 to demand his release. The placard reads
APR 23, 2019 SENEGAL
File picture of Thioune's supporters, called 'Thiantacounes,' protesting outside a Dakar prison in October 2012 to demand his release. The placard reads "Proud to be Thianta". By SEYLLOU (AFP)

A Senegalese court on Tuesday began the long-awaited trial of a religious leader and 21 disciples accused in the murder of two renegade followers seven years earlier.

In a case freighted with repercussions, one of the accused is Sheikh Bethio Thioune, who leads a major group in the Mouride Brotherhood -- a Sufi order of Islam that wields great political influence in Senegal.

The trial, unfolding over six sessions at Mbour, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) southeast of Dakar, began amid tight security.

The case turns on the gruesome killing on April 22, 2012 of two young men, whose badly-beaten bodies were found 800 metres (yards) from Thioune's home, in Keur Samba Laobe, western Senegal

His followers are accused of brutally killing the pair at his residence and tossing their bodies in a shallow grave.

Thioune was arrested the next day and was charged with accessory to murder. He was granted bail in February 2013.

The murder has turned a spotlight on the role of charismatic leaders in Senegal, where 90 percent of the population are Muslim and many are members of the Mouride Brotherhood.

His followers, known as "Thiantacounes" rioted in the streets of Dakar in October 2012.

Human rights groups, as well as relatives of the accused who have spent years in pre-trial custody, have attacked the long time it has taken for the case to come to court.

Twenty-two people are on trial, facing charges ranging from murder with acts of barbarity to criminal association, unauthorised burial and non-reporting of a crime.

The victims, according to an autopsy, bore signs of violence caused by "sharp and blunt weapons and firearms."

One of the defence attorneys, El Hadji Mamadou Ndiaye, said the sheikh had excluded one of the two murdered men from entering his home.

The man, according to this account, had been accused of worshipping Thioune and even comparing him to God -- an act of sacrilege.

He refused to obey the ban on entering the residence, which prompted Thioune's outraged supporters to kill him and one of his friends, the lawyer said.

Thioune, a civilian office worker by profession, has 29 children. He has been charged with "failure to report a crime, being absent at the moment of the deed," which carries a penalty of between two months and three years in jail, and a fine of up to a million CFA francs ($1,700, 1,530 euros).

He "vigorously contests" the charge, one of his lawyers, Moussa Sarr, told AFP before the trial.

Defence lawyers asked for the prosecution of Thioune to be suspended, contending that he had left the country in January to receive "intensive" medical treatment in Bordeaux, France.

Civilian plaintiffs said that medical claim was bogus.

Judge Thierno Niang said the court had not received a medical file from the defence and ruled that Thioune, believed to be aged around 80, be tried "in absentia."