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Senegal Braces For Sonko Verdict

FILE: Riot police officers arrive during clashes with supporters of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko after they were prevented from reaching his house in Dakar, Senegal on May 29, 2023.

DAKAR - A rape case putting a 23-year-old woman against Senegal's most prominent opposition leader has dismayed feminists in the country, who fear their cause has taken a blow. The West African state is bracing for potential violence on Thursday when the trial verdict is expected to be announced.

The case revolves around Ousmane Sonko, a firebrand politician who has drawn a huge following among young people with attacks on Senegal's elite.

The 48-year-old is accused of raping beauty salon employee Adji Sarr and issuing death threats against her.

Sarr was forced into hiding after facing relentless threats and insults.

Now, she only leaves her home under police escort.

Sonko denies the allegations and in the run-up to Thursday's trial verdict hearing, called on the public to protest en-masse.

Some feminists say the two-year-old case has dodged a rare chance to advance the rights of victims of sexual violence.

But others worry it marks a step backward in the long struggle for empowerment.

"This trial is a huge setback that will leave its mark on the history of women's rights," said Aminata Libain Mbengue of the Feminists' Network of Senegal.

"There has been no debate on consent and sexual violence - the political aspect immediately dominated," Mbengue added.

"Whatever the verdict, Adji Sarr has already been given life imprisonment - she can no longer live in Senegal, is threatened with death and has lost all freedom," she also said.

Activists say the trial has left the rights of women and victims of sexual violence either drowned out as an issue or sidelined.

One reason is that campaigners have been threatened by Sonko supporters, but the cause has also failed to gain much help from Sarr herself, they say.

Her appearance has been widely attacked as vulgar and her testimony as crude, prompting headlines of "X-rated" and "like a porn movie" in this conservative Muslim country.

Sonko says the case is part of a plot by President Macky Sall to scuttle his ambitions for the 2024 elections.

His critics call him a rabble-rouser who is seeking to evade justice. When Sonko was charged in 2021, riots and looting erupted that left a dozen people dead.

- 'Theatre' -

"Rape is a very painful ordeal - women who are victims are ashamed and hide their faces" said Amy Wane, a 27-year-old journalist.

"Adji Sarr, on the other hand, flaunts herself on social networks, comes to court in a tight red dress, and puts forward no proof (of rape) whatsoever".

Nafissa Fall, 27, said: "These days, when you want to insult a woman, you say you hope she has a child like Adji Sarr - the image of women has taken a hit."

But Die Maty Fall, another journalist, said Sarr had "done well to put into words what she has been through."

"Political figures are going to have to be more careful to ensure that what they say in public is consistent with their attitude in private," she said.

Sociologist Rosalie Aduayi Diop, a specialist in sexual violence, described the trial as "theatre."

It showed the limits of the justice system, with "untruths from all sides," and increased mistrust of the institutions, she said.

"Beyond the issue of rape, the big regret is the way that a woman was instrumentalized for political ends," she said.