A court in Senegal sentenced the country’s leading opposition figure to two years in prison on Thursday after finding him guilty of “corrupting youth.” The ruling, which for now bars him from running in future elections, throws the West African nation’s political future into uncertainty less than a year before its next presidential contest.
The opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was accused of raping an employee of a massage parlor in Dakar, the capital, and issuing death threats against her. The court acquitted him of those charges, which he had denied and denounced as an attempt by Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, to sideline him.
But the conviction of “corrupting youth” — a charge relating to an accusation that he had a sexual relationship with the massage parlor worker, who was under 21 at the time — renders him ineligible to run in next year’s election, a poll that is widely seen in Senegal and broader West Africa as a test of democratic values in the region.
There is no public proof that Mr. Sonko’s case has been politically motivated, but some academics, human rights observers and most opponents of Mr. Sall have raised questions about the lack of concrete evidence and the harsh treatment of Mr. Sonko throughout the proceedings. They have also in recent years warned of a steady erosion of democratic norms as several political opponents have been jailed and journalists arrested.
Senegal, a country of 17 million people, has long been hailed as a model of political pluralism in West Africa, a region known for coups and aging leaders clinging to power. Elections have been mostly peaceful since the country became independent from France in 1960, and their results have usually been respected by all parties. The United States and European countries, as well as China, hold Senegal as one of their most reliable partners in West Africa.
Yet the battle around the political future of Mr. Sonko, 48, whose fiery rhetoric has made him popular among young Senegalese, has become the president’s biggest challenge. In the coming months, it could lead to the most serious test faced by Senegalese democracy in more than a decade, analysts say.
“Senegal finds itself in a thick fog, with lots of uncertainties,” said Alioune Tine, a rights expert and founder of the AfrikaJom Center, a Dakar-based research organization. “It has turned into a police state and, increasingly, an authoritarian one.”
In recent months, police officers have been posted at multiple traffic circles in Dakar; temporary bans on motorcycles to prevent quick gatherings of protesters have become a regular fixture in the capital; and demonstrators have faced a heavy-handed response from security forces, with clashes at times turning deadly. Protesters have also targeted the police, attacked gas stations and this week burned the house of Mr. Sall’s chief of staff.
On Wednesday, riot police officers threw tear gas at lawmakers from the National Assembly who were trying to peacefully approach Mr. Sonko’s house in Dakar. The police have also targeted foreign journalists covering the episode, and dozens of members of Mr. Sonko’s party have been jailed or placed under electronic surveillance.
Opponents of Mr. Sall have accused him of repeatedly sidelining key opposition leaders, including Mr. Sonko, who was barred by Senegal’s constitutional council from running in last year’s parliamentary elections. Current and former Dakar mayors were also prohibited from running in the 2019 presidential election because of convictions for embezzlement.
At a hearing last month, Mr. Sonko’s accuser said he had abused her five times at a massage parlor between late 2020 and February 2021, and sent her death threats. The New York Times does not routinely name accusers in rape cases, but Mr. Sonko’s accuser, Adji Sarr, has been publicly identified and has given news interviews. She has been under police protection since 2021.
Gender-based violence has been decreasing in Senegal in recent years, but it remains widespread, though rarely talked about. About 30 percent of women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence, according to a demographic and health survey released in 2017, with the highest rate, 34 percent, among those ages 25 to 29. More than two-thirds never spoke about it or sought help.
Many Senegalese say they do not believe the accuser.
Moussa Sané, a 46-year-old businessman, attended court on Thursday. He said he wasn’t a Sonko supporter but that the verdict showed the political motive of the trial. “The government is trying its best to prevent Sonko from running in the next election,” he said.
Even as Ms. Sarr detailed at length last week the abuse she said she had faced, Senegalese newspapers published headlines with lewd innuendos, comparing her testimony to pornography.
Marième Cissé, an expert on gender issues, said Senegalese society still put the blame on victims of sexual violence. The Sonko trial, she added, gave many Senegalese the impression that a crime as serious as rape had been used for political purposes.
“That instrumentalization has minimized the seriousness of the accusation,” said Ms. Cissé, a researcher with the Dakar-based Wathi research organization. “It could discourage women from talking about the abuse they may face.”
Mr. Sonko has been widely regarded as Mr. Sall’s strongest challenger in next year’s election, although Mr. Sall has not said whether he will run.
According to most legal experts, the Senegalese Constitution prevents him from doing so: It limits presidents to two five-year terms, and Mr. Sall is set to complete his second term in February. But he has argued that a constitutional reform adopted in 2016 reset the constitutional clock to zero, and that if he were to run and win the election next year, another term would count as his second, not third.
Mr. Sall told The New York Times last year that there was “no legal debate” over whether he could run, but that he had yet to make a decision.
Mr. Tine, the rights expert, said a third term would amount to a clear violation of the Constitution.
Mady Camara contributed reporting.