A court in Senegal has handed down a two-month suspended prison sentence to leading opposition politician Ousmane Sonko for libel, his lawyers said.
The court in the capital, Dakar found him guilty on Thursday of defaming Tourism Minister Mame Mbaye Niang, whom he accused of embezzlement.
The sentence will not prevent Sonko from running in presidential elections next year – an apparent effort by authorities to defuse a standoff with his supporters, who have repeatedly taken to the streets to denounce what they say is a politically motivated campaign.
Still, a spokesperson for Sonko’s party expressed disappointment with the outcome of the trial, Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque reported from Dakar.
“He [Sonko] is disappointed that he is convicted for what he thinks is just him telling the truth [about the tourism minister],” said Haque.
However, a spokesperson for the governing party termed the verdict a “victory for democracy, rule of law, and the justice system”, added Haque.
“The opposition has always said the justice system serves the purpose of eliminating the opposition [leaders] that could be rivals to the president, but the ruling party says the verdict shows that democracy is thriving in Senegal,” Haque said.
A former tax inspector who transitioned to politics and became the leader of the Pastef opposition party, Sonko finished third in the 2019 presidential election. His popularity has since risen and he is considered today as incumbent President Macky Sall’s foremost political opponent.
Sonko faced libel charges brought against him by Mbaye Niang after accusing him of stealing 29 billion CFA francs ($47m) from a government agency. He denied wrongdoing and previously said the charges against him were a tactic to eliminate him from the presidential race.
The 48-year-old also faces separate charges of raping a beauty salon employee and making death threats to her in 2021. He has also denied wrongdoing in the sexual abuse case.
The cases have prompted violent protests across the country. Anger has also risen around fears Sall will use a recent change to the constitution to reset his mandate, which ends in 2024, allowing him to run for a third term.
Sall has shirked all questions about this, neither confirming nor denying the claim.
Police were deployed in large numbers in Dakar on Thursday, a day after security forces fired tear gas during clashes with students trying to hold a banned demonstration.
Shortly after the verdict was announced, said Dakar was no longer a “tense city” and that people were coming back to the street despite a heavy police presence.