Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko will face trial on charges of rape and making death threats to a beauty salon employee in 2021, an investigating judge said in a letter.
The judge referred the matter to Senegal’s criminal chamber for trial in a letter dated Jan. 17 and seen by Reuters on Wednesday.
Sonko’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Sonko has denied all the charges.
A trial could jeopardize his intention to compete in the 2024 presidential election. The 48-year-old politician, who came third in the 2019 election, has announced he will run.
It could also stoke political tensions in Senegal. Clashes broke out in the country in March 2021 when Sonko was initially summoned by the investigating judge and arrested.
Sonko is accused of sexually assaulting a woman who worked in a massage parlour and later threatening her. He and his backers say the trial is politically motivated to eliminate him from the presidential race.
He enjoys widespread support among Senegalese youth, many of who are frustrated with the government as unemployment and economic hardship have remained high, leading to sporadic and sometimes violent protests.
El Hadj Diouf, lawyer for the plaintiff, said his client was delighted by the judge’s decision.
“It does not come as a surprise. We have nothing to hide,” he told Reuters by telephone.
Some opposition leaders and Sonko’s supporters fear that the case is an attempt by Senegal’s President Macky Sall, 61, to remove a potentially popular rival if he decides to seek a third term amid dwindling support.
Other rivals have been the subject of criminal charges in the past, including former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, eliminating them from the 2019 presidential race.
Sall’s second term will be up in 2024. He has not said whether he will run for a third term.