Ruling by Senegal's highest court blocks jailed opposition leader Sonko from running for president

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Senegal police stands in front of the Supreme Court in Dakar, Senegal, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, as the court is due to rule on whether opposition leader and presidential hopeful Ousmane Sonko can take part in the upcoming February election despite being struck from the country's voter rolls after his conviction on charges of corrupting youth earlier this year. (AP Photo/Sylvain Cherkaoui)

DAKAR – Senegal's highest court on Friday effectively barred detained opposition leader Ousmane Sonko from running for president early next year by overturning a decision that would have reinstated him to the West African country's voter rolls.

The legal setback for the embattled politician came the same day that a West African regional court dismissed his case seeking his reinstatement. Sonko was recently returned to a Dakar jail after being hospitalized for several weeks amid a hunger strike.

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Senegal's government formally dissolved Sonko's political party earlier this year and canceled his voter registration after he was convicted of corrupting youth. His followers maintain the charge and prosecution were politically motivated and aimed at derailing his candidacy in the February election.

A court in the southern city of Ziguinchor, where Sonko serves as mayor, ruled in favor of restoring him to the voter rolls but the Supreme Court “quashed and annulled” that decision, according to Sonko attorney Cire Cledor Ly. The case was remanded to the Dakar high court, he said.

Senegalese authorities have refused to give Sonko the sponsorship papers needed to officially register his candidacy.

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

In June, Sonko was acquitted on charges of raping a woman who worked at a massage parlor and making death threats against her. But he was convicted of corrupting youth and sentenced to two years in prison, which ignited deadly protests across the country.

In late July, Senegalese authorities formally dissolved Sonko’s political party and placed him in detention. He is now facing charges of calling for insurrection, conspiracy against the state and other alleged crimes.

Sonko also had appealed to the Court of Justice of the regional bloc ECOWAS to contest both the dissolution of his party and the striking of his voter registration, but that court ruled Friday "that none of Mr. Ousmane Sonko’s rights had been violated and dismissed his claims,” Ly said.