A Senegalese judge charged opposition leader Ousmane Sonko with rape and freed him from detention pending an investigation on Monday, after his arrest last week sparked the West African state’s worst unrest in years.
Five people including a schoolboy were killed in nationwide clashes that followed the arrest of Sonko, a government critic who is popular with young Senegalese.
The judge in the capital Dakar freed the opposition leader from detention but also formally charged him with rape, and the police investigation into the allegation is set to continue.
Sonko calls the rape allegation politically motivated.
“He’s going home. He’s free,” said Etienne Ndione, one of Sonko’s lawyers.
Opposition supporters, who had gathered in central Dakar and waved Senegalese flags on Monday morning, broke past police lines and entered a yard in front of the courthouse after Sonko’s release was announced, chanting political slogans.
There was heavy police presence in the capital, as an opposition collective known as the Movement for Defence of Democracy over the weekend called for three days of massive demonstrations.
Sonko came third in 2019’s presidential election and his popularity has fuelled speculation that he could be a future leader.
Police arrested the 46-year-old for public disorder on Wednesday after scuffles between his supporters and security forces broke out.
Sonko, accompanied by supporters, had been making his way to court for the rape case.
Cars set alight
After Sonko’s arrest last week, protesters torched cars, looted shops and threw stones at police, highlighting longstanding grievances over living standards and inequality.
The clashes had abated by Saturday but calls from the opposition to take to the streets again have led to concerns the violence could escalate.
Military vehicles topped with machine guns were stationed in areas in Dakar where recent clashes took place, and a dozen others were seen passing Independence Square, in the heart of the city’s government quarter where the presidential palace is located.
Schools in the capital have been ordered closed for a week.
Senegal’s neighbours and the United Nations have expressed concerns about political tensions in the country, which is usually considered a beacon of stability in a volatile region.
Sonko’s legal troubles emerged in February when an employee at a beauty salon where he received massages filed a rape accusation against him.
The opposition leader accused President Macky Sall of engineering the complaint in order to sideline him from politics. Sall denies the claim.
The rape charge nonetheless comes amid uncertainty over whether the 59-year-old president will seek a third term.
Senegalese presidents are limited to two consecutive terms, but some fear Sall will seek to exploit constitutional changes approved in a 2016 referendum to run again.
Other West African presidents — such as Guinea’s Alpha Conde or Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara — have used constitutional changes to win third terms.
To Senegal’s opposition, Sonko’s case also fits into a perceived pattern of court cases targeting Sall opponents.
The Sonko affair has drawn analogies with Karim Wade, the son of former president Abdoulaye Wade, who was prevented from running in the 2019 election after being convicted for graft.