Senegal’s main opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was arrested on Wednesday after hundreds of his supporters clashed with police in the capital while protesting a rape allegation that he denies.
An employee of a beauty salon accused Sonko last month of rape. The politician, who finished third in the 2019 presidential election, was summoned for questioning after his parliamentary immunity was lifted last week.
Sonko, a 46-year-old former tax inspector, accuses the government of President Macky Sall of agitating the impeachment to undermine its strongest rival.
The widespread support he enjoys among Senegalese youth was on display on Wednesday. Near his home, supporters burned tires and threw stones at riot police, who responded by firing tear gas. A Reuters reporter saw three people injured, including one bleeding from the head.
“We are ready to die for Sonko!” some chanted.
At Cheikh Anta Diop University in the center of Dakar, hundreds of students charged the police and threw stones. A Reuters reporter saw a policeman firing an automatic rifle into the crowd and several others firing shotguns, although it was unclear which rounds were used. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Amid the uproar, Sonko, who was in a convoy heading to a courthouse in the center of Dakar to answer questioning about the rape charge, was arrested by the police.
His lawyer, Bamba Cisse, said he was accused of disturbing public order and participating in a prohibited demonstration.
“They want to catch him in the act, try him and convict him off the electoral rolls,” Cisse told Reuters. “The first rape accusation didn’t work, so now they’ve found something else.”
Police were not immediately available for comment.
Abdou Mbow, a spokesman for Sall’s APR party, said the violence “was nothing more than vandalism that I think deserves to be punished.”
Sall’s other rivals have been the subject of criminal charges in the past, including former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, son of former President Abdoulaye Wade. As a result, neither man was able to run for president in 2019.
Sall, 59, denies there was political interference in the cases. In power since 2012 and re-elected in 2019, he has not commented on reports that he could seek a third term in 2024.
Sall’s opponents say running for a third term would violate the constitution.