Senegal’s top opposition leader freed from prison ahead of presidential election, lawyer says

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DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Senegal’s top opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was released from jail late Thursday ahead of the country’s presidential election scheduled for March 24, his lawyer said.

Sonko and his key ally, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, were both set free, his lawyer Bamba Cisse told The Associated Press. An AP journalist saw his car waiting for him at the gates of the prison Thursday night.

Supporters gathered at Sonko’s house and at other locations in the capital Dakar to celebrate. Drivers tooted their horns in celebration.

It wasn’t immediately clear how their releases would impact the election.

Sonko had been in prison since July and has fought a prolonged legal battle to run for president in the upcoming election. Faye was named as the opposition’s election candidate after Sonko was barred from running.

Sonko, who finished third in the country’s 2019 presidential election, is widely seen as the main challenger to President Macky Sall’s ruling party. Sall himself ultimately decided not to seek a third term in office after Sonko’s supporters launched months of protests that at times turned deadly.

The protests have rocked Senegal’s image as a pillar of stability West Africa, a region that has seen dozens of coups and attempted coups in recent decades.

Sonko’s presidential bid has faced a prolonged legal battle that started when he was accused of rape in 2021. He was acquitted of the rape charges but was convicted of corrupting youth and sentenced to two years in prison last summer, which ignited deadly protests across the country.

Sonko was disqualified from the ballot because he faces a six-month suspended sentence following his conviction for defamation, Senegal’s highest election authority, the Constitutional Council, said in January.

His supporters maintain his legal troubles are part of a government effort to derail his candidacy in the 2024 presidential election.

His release follows Sall’s decree to exonerate political prisoners, including hundreds that were arrested in the violent protests last year.

Presidential candidates in Senegal kicked off their election campaigns on Saturday, following weeks of violent protests across the African country after the vote was delayed.

Sall tried to postpone the election last month, just weeks before it was to take place on Feb. 25. His announcement that the vote would instead be held 10 months from now plunged Senegal into uncertainty and drew protesters to the streets again. But the Constitutional Council, rejected Sall’s postponement and ordered the government to set a new date as soon as possible.