Senegal’s opposition leader Ousmane Sonko has been sentenced to two years in prison for “corrupting youth,” according to state media.
The conviction means Sonko, who has a large youth following and is the leader of the PASTEF party (Patriots of Senegal for Ethics, Work and Fraternity), will not be eligible to stand for the country’s upcoming 2024 elections.
The court cleared Sonko of other charges, including rape, Radio Television Senegalaise said.
The ruling means he was found to have acted immorally towards an individual younger than 21.
The charges stemmed from allegations made by a massage therapist.
He denied any wrongdoing, and said the case was aimed at blocking his presidential ambitions. His supporters are protesting against the ruling.
One of his lawyers, Abdy Nar Ndiaye, said it was suspicious that the judge had not ordered the immediate arrest of the 48-year-old politician.
“This means that their objective is not to arrest Sonko, but to keep him out of the next elections,” he said.
The government has rejected accusations that the case against the opposition leader, and others he has faced, are politically motivated.
Sonko was accused of sexually assaulting and threatening a massage therapist at a beauty salon in 2021. She was 20 when she made the accusations, which he denied.
He said he went to the salon for a massage for chronic back pain and that the case against him was politically motivated, AFP news agency reports.
The owner of the beauty salon, Ndeye Khady Ndiaye, was also sentenced to two years in prison by the judge for the same offence of “corrupting youth”.
Sonko, who is very popular amongst unemployed youth, has undergone a meteoric political rise in the last few years.
After his dismissal as a taxi inspector in 2016, he was elected to parliament and became mayor of the southern city of Ziguinchor.
He ran in the 2019 presidential elections, coming third.
Sonko accuses President Macky Sall of planning to stay in office for an unconstitutional third term.
The president has not yet announced his intentions, but with political tensions rising across the country he invited opposition parties to talks this week. Sonko’s party refused to attend.
When Sonko was arrested in 2021 for disrupting public order, clashes left at least a dozen people dead.