DAKAR: A court in Senegal on Thursday sentenced firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, a candidate in the 2024 presidential election, to two years' jail on charges of "corrupting youth" but acquitted him of rape and issuing death threats.
It also sentenced Sonko's co-accused, Ndeye Khady Ndiaye, the owner of the beauty salon where Sonko was accused of repeatedly abusing an employee, to two years' imprisonment.
The two-year-old case deeply divided the West African state, sparking clashes between Sonko supporters and security forces that battered the country's image of stability.
Much attention has focused on whether a conviction would prevent Sonko, 48, from contesting next year's vote.
Building a fervent following among disaffected youth, he has thrown down the gauntlet to President Macky Sall, portraying him as corrupt and a would-be dictator.
Sonko was not in court for the verdict. He was presumed to be at his Dakar home, where he had been blocked in by security forces after being detained at the weekend.
He faced charges of raping a 23-year-old beauty salon worker, who also accused him of making death threats.
"Corrupting youth" -- debauching or encouraging the debauchery of a person under the age of 21 -- is a lesser category of offence.
But it also appears to threaten his eligibility under the electoral code, and one of his lawyers, Djiby Diagne, said "Ousmane's Sonko's candidacy is in jeopardy."
The court did not rule on whether he should be arrested.
"The decision to arrest him or not depends on the public prosecutor," Diagne said.
On Thursday morning, security forces prevented journalists and Sonko's supporters from approaching the house, throwing tear gas without warning at a group of reporters, including an AFP journalist.
Sonko has maintained his innocence and claims Sall is manipulating the judiciary to to torpedo his political career -- a charge the government denies.
If he had been convicted of rape, he would have faced up to 20 years' imprisonment.
His electoral eligibility had already been overshadowed by a six-month suspended prison sentence for defamation against a minister.
- Clashes -
Sonko, head of the PASTEF-Patriots party, leapt to national prominence in the 2019 when he came in third to Sall.
On Tuesday, he urged the public to take to the streets.
"Everyone should rise up as one," he said on social media. "Power should remain with the people."
Young people attacked the homes of at least two of the president's close aides.
However the damage was a far cry from what took place in 2021, when Sonko was initially arrested on the rape charges.
Several days of clashes at the time left at least 12 people dead.
Several more have died in sporadic violence this year, including a fatality that occurred at the weekend when police detained Sonko ahead of Thursday's hearing.
At the heart of the trial were allegations by beauty salon worker Adji Sarr.
Sonko denied any wrongdoing, saying he went to the salon for a massage for chronic back pain and that the case against him is politically motivated.
Sall's supporters say Sonko is a rabble-rouser who has poisoned the political climate and sown instability.
The trial, whose first two hearings were boycotted by Sonko, has riveted and divided the public in the conservative Muslim country.
Media outlets have focused overwhelmingly on the trial's political consequences and salacious elements in Sarr's testimony, to the dismay of some feminists.
They accuse Sonko of using language that normalises sexual violence and denigrates his accuser.