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Senegal Blocks Some Social Media After Ousmane Sonko Is Sentenced

The government of Senegal said on Friday that it has deployed the military in the capital, Dakar, and other cities and shut down social media platforms in response to Thursday’s deadly clashes between protesters and security forces — a new escalation of tensions rarely seen in the West African country.

Demonstrators took to the streets across the West African nation on Thursday shortly after a court convicted a leading opposition figure, Ousmane Sonko, on charges of “corrupting youth,” while acquitting him on the major charges he had faced of rape and making death threats. Mr. Sonko was sentenced to two years in prison in a case that his supporters said was politically motivated.

Shortly after the verdict, demonstrators brawled with security forces, resulting in the deaths of at least nine people, according to the government.

Periodic demonstrations have broken out in Senegal since the arrest of Mr. Sonko in 2021 after a massage parlor employee accused him of rape. But the violence of Thursday brought tensions in Senegal, a largely peaceful country, to a new high. Protesters fought with security forces in multiple neighborhoods of Dakar, and parts of the city’s main university were damaged. Supermarkets, train and gas stations were also burned down in several cities.

Senegal’s interior minister, Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome, said the deaths on Thursday had occurred in Dakar and in Ziguinchor, a southern city where Mr. Sonko is mayor. In 2021, at least 14 people were killed in protests that followed his arrest.

Confrontations continued on Friday throughout several Senegalese cities and in several neighborhoods of Dakar, where schools and many business remained closed. Multiple faculty buildings at the city’s Cheikh Anta Diop University were burned and ransacked, and classes for tens of thousands of students were suspended until further notice.

Abdou Karim Fofana, the government’s spokesman, said the military had been deployed to keep order. He declined to say how many troops had been mobilized or where.

The government also blocked social media outlets, which Mr. Diome, the interior minister, said was necessary to prevent calls to violence and hatred from circulating widely.

As of Friday, Mr. Sonko’s fate remained unclear. Security forces stationed around his house in Dakar, where he also keeps a residence, have prevented him from leaving for days. They have also, without warning, thrown tear gas at journalists, lawmakers and residents walking nearby.

Mr. Sonko, a 48-year-old former tax inspector who is popular among younger people, has accused the president of using court cases to sideline him. In return, the government of President Macky Sall has accused Mr. Sonko of calling for an insurrection and threatening Senegal’s public order. His arrest could come at any time, Ismaïla Madior Fall, the justice minister, told reporters on Thursday.

Political and human rights observers have closely watched recent developments in Senegal because the country is set to hold its next presidential election in February, a contest seen as a test in a troubled region.

For now, the sentence bars Mr. Sonko from running in the election. He is not allowed to appeal the verdict because he was not present in court for the trial. But two of his lawyers and Mr. Fall, the justice minister, said that Mr. Sonko could secure a retrial if he surrendered or was imprisoned.

Senegal has long taken pride in its culture of peaceful dialogue, political pluralism and the absence of coups since gaining independence from France in 1960. But human rights defenders and political observers have raised questions about the arrests of journalists and dozens of political opponents in recent years, as well as the criminal charges brought against major opposition figures, including Mr. Sonko.

“There are expectations in the Senegalese democratic culture that the judiciary should be independent,” said Catherine Lena Kelly, an expert on Senegalese politics at the African Center for Strategic Studies, a research group that is part of the United States Defense Department. “But there have been grievances during the Sall presidency about what some citizens consider to be the state selectively charging opposition leaders with criminal offenses.”

On Friday, many Senegalese took to social media despite the ban to express their concerns about the escalation of violence. Some of the loudest messengers have been the players of Senegal’s national soccer team. Most of them play abroad, but they are widely respected after winning the last Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s major tournament.

“Too much blood has been spilled over the past two years,” the star player Sadio Mané wrote to his 14 million followers on Instagram, urging those behind the violence to bring back peace.

Whether those messages could be heard in Senegal while social media is shut down remained to be seen.

Babacar Ndiaye, a political analyst in Senegal, said that to his knowledge, the social media blackout was a first in the country.

“It’s surprising to say the least,” said Mr. Ndiaye, the research and publication director at Wathi, a Dakar-based research organization. “Social media have always been a space of free expression in Senegal, including yesterday when people exchanged information in real time about the clashes and the law enforcement response.”

As of Friday afternoon, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and WhatsApp were not working, and many Senegalese had switched to virtual private networks, which get around such bans by masking a user’s location.

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Mohammad SHiblu

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