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Senegal opposition leader plans march to the capital

FILE PHOTO: Senegal opposition leader indicted and released on bail in Dakar

By Ngouda Dione and Diadie Ba

DAKAR (Reuters) -Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko on Wednesday called on supporters to join him on a march of defiance to the capital after a prosecutor asked a court to find him guilty and sentence him to 10 years in prison on rape charges.

The verdict is expected on June 1. Such a sentence would likely bar him from running for president in next year's election. The case has fuelled unrest, undermining Senegal's image as one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.

"Let's all go to Dakar to confront Macky Sall... Let all the young people who believe in our project join us in Dakar," Sonko said from the southern city of Ziguinchor, where he is mayor.

The proposed march could bring further instability to Senegal, where violent protests have taken place since Sonko was first detained for alleged rape in 2021.

The 48-year-old is accused of sexually assaulting and making death threats to a woman who worked in a massage parlour in 2021. He denies wrongdoing and has boycotted the court proceedings.

"Now we have to face (President) Macky Sall and fight," Sonko told a crowd of followers in a speech that was streamed online.

Particularly popular among young people, Sonko says his long-running legal troubles are a ploy to bar him from the polls in February 2024. He was handed a suspended prison sentence in a separate libel case this month, which he has appealed.

The authorities deny that the cases are politically motivated.

Supporters usually take to the street when Sonko is in court, although no unrest occurred in Dakar when the rape trial resumed in his absence on Tuesday.

Some had barricaded roads in Ziguinchor, fearing that police could try to force him to appear.

TEN-YEAR SENTENCE

Testimony continued late into the night on Tuesday as judges heard Sonko's accuser and the massage parlour's former owner Khady Ndiaye among others.

Dressed in red, the accuser provided a detailed account of the alleged aggression and said she was raped five times.

The doctor who consulted her on the evening of the alleged attack said he had found traces of sperm.

Ndiaye, accused of complicity in the matter, denied any of the services provided by her former employees involved sexual acts.

Sonko's lawyers were unable to speak on his behalf due to his absence, which also means he will not be able to appeal if convicted.

At 3 a.m., the public prosecutor called on judges to sentence Sonko to 10 years in prison for rape, or five years for moral corruption, and a fine equivalent to over $3,300 if the rape charge was not upheld.

The case was adjourned for deliberation after his statement.

Sall, 61, who was first elected in 2012, won a second term in a 2019 presidential election in which Sonko finished third.

A new constitution adopted in 2016 limits presidential terms to two. However, there are concerns Sall could argue that the constitutional reform resets his presidential mandate, allowing him to run again.

(Writing by Sofia Christensen and Anait Miridzhanian; Editing by Kim Coghill, Alessandra Prentice and Bill Berkrot)