DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The number of people killed in days of clashes between Senegalese police and supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko has now risen to 15, including two security agents, the government said on Saturday. .
Clashes continued in pockets of the city on Friday night with protesters throwing rocks, burning cars and damaging supermarkets as police fired tear gas and the government deployed the army in tanks.
Sonko was found guilty on Thursday of bribing young people, but was acquitted on charges of raping a woman who worked at a massage parlor and uttering death threats against her. Sonko, who did not attend his trial in Dakar, was sentenced to two years in prison. His lawyer said no arrest warrant has yet been issued for him.
Sonko came third in Senegal’s 2019 presidential election and is popular with the country’s youth. His supporters argue his legal troubles are part of a government effort to derail his bid for the 2024 presidential election.
Sonko is seen as President Macky Sall’s main competitor and has urged Sall to state publicly that he will not seek a third term.
The international community has called on the Senegalese government to resolve the tensions. The French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs said it was “extremely concerned about the violence” and called for a resolution to this crisis, while respecting Senegal’s long democratic tradition.
Rights groups have condemned the government crackdown, which includes arbitrary arrests and restrictions on social media. Some social media sites used by protesters to incite violence, such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, were suspended for nearly two days.
Senegalese blame the government for the violence and the loss of life.
A woman, Seynabou Diop, told The Associated Press on Saturday that her 21-year-old son, Khadim, was killed during the protests by a bullet to the chest.
“I feel deep pain. What is happening is difficult. Our children are dying. I never thought I would have to go through this,” she said.
It was the first time her son, a disciplined and kind mechanic, had joined the protests, rushing out of the house as soon as he learned Sonko had been sentenced, she said.
“I think Macky Sall is responsible. If he had spoken to the Senegalese people, especially the young people, we might not have all these problems,” Diop said. The Associated Press cannot verify the cause of death. The family said an autopsy was in progress.
Youth bribery, which includes using one’s position of power to have sex with anyone under the age of 21, is a criminal offense in Senegal, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $6,000.
According to Senegalese law, Sonko’s conviction would bar him from running in next year’s elections, said Bamba Cissé, another defense attorney. However, the government has said Sonko may seek a retrial once he is imprisoned. It was not known when he would be taken into custody.
If the violence continues, it could threaten the country’s institutions, analysts say.
“Never in their worst forms of nightmare (would) have thought to witness the dominant forms of apocalyptic and irrational violence,” said Alioune Tine, founder of Afrikajom Center, a West African think tank.
“The most shared feeling about the current situation is fear, stress, exhaustion and helplessness. So what people are looking for now is peace,” he said.
The West African country has been seen as a bastion of democratic stability in the region.
Sonko has not been heard from or seen since the verdict. In a statement on Friday, his PASTEF-Patriots party called on Senegalese to “amplify and intensify the constitutional resistance” until President Sall leaves office.
Government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana said the damage caused by months of protests had cost the country millions of dollars. He argued that the protesters themselves were a threat to democracy.
“These calls (to demonstrate) are a bit like the anti-republican nature of all these movements that hide behind social networks and do not believe in the foundations of democracy, which are elections, freedom of expression, but also the resources that our (legal) system offers,” Fofana said.