A Senegalese court on Tuesday resumed the trial of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko on rape charges, but he failed for the second time running to attend the high-stakes proceedings.
After lengthy deliberations, the court rejected pleas by Sonoko and his co-accused for an adjournment.
Police in the capital Dakar placed a security cordon around the courtroom, fearing a resurgence of clashes triggered by the case, but there was no immediate incident.
Dakar was noticeably quieter than usual and no significant disturbances were reported Tuesday morning.
Highly popular among young people, Sonko has branded the trial a political plot aimed at scuttling his bid for the 2024 presidency.
He has been charged with rape and making death threats against an employee of a beauty salon in Dakar.
Sonko, 48, said he went to the salon for a massage for chronic back pain and denies any assault.
His trial opened on May 16 but was immediately adjourned until May 23 after he failed to attend.
– ‘I will be there’ –
On Friday he demanded guarantees for his safety as a condition for attending the trial.
“If all the (security) conditions are met, I will be there,” he said.
Sonko is believed to be in the southern city of Ziguinchor, several hundred kilometres (miles) from Dakar, where he is mayor.
Schools have been suspended until Thursday morning in Ziguinchor.
Senegal is traditionally a beacon of stability in troubled West Africa, but in recent years has been buffeted by turbulence that has at times turned deadly.
When Sonko was arrested in 2021, several days of protests left at least 12 people dead.
Three other people died during clashes between Sonko supporters and police ahead of the May 16 proceedings.
Sonko, president of the PASTEF-Patriots party, came in third in the 2019 election against incumbent Macky Sall.
Political tensions have also been stoked by Sall’s refusal to rule out running for a third term as president, a move his opponents say would be unconstitutional.
In March, Sonko was sentenced to a six-month suspended prison sentence for defamation and insults against the tourism minister.
Rape is punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison.
If convicted, Sonko risks being ineligible to run for president in February 2024.
Sall was elected in 2012, when the presidential term was seven years, and re-elected in 2019, when the mandate was reduced to five years.