Senegal opposition leader's rape trial resumes amid fears of unrest

By Ngouda Dione and Bate Felix

DAKAR (Reuters) -The delayed rape trial of Senegal's opposition leader Ousmane Sonko resumed in his absence in the capital Dakar on Tuesday as defence lawyers withdrew from the case and his party called for public protest.

Security forces patrolled crossroads and enforced a temporary ban on motorcycles as authorities feared another round of protests that have flared sporadically since Sonko was first detained over the case in 2021.

Sonko, 48, is accused of sexually assaulting and making death threats to a woman who worked in a massage parlour.

A conviction could quash his intentions to run again for president in elections next year. That bid is already threatened by a recent suspended prison sentence in a separate libel case that he has appealed.

Sonko denies all wrongdoing and says the trials are politically motivated. The government has rejected the accusation.

The rape case opened on May 16 but was immediately postponed by a week after defence lawyers said they needed more time.

Sonko was not in court on Tuesday. He said earlier this month that he would no longer cooperate with the justice authorities unless his security was guaranteed.

The woman accusing Sonko and the massage parlour's former owner Khady Ndiaye, accused of complicity in the alleged rape, were both present.

Sonko's lawyers requested another adjournment, and Ndiaye's lawyers asked for more preparation time. But the prosecutor dismissed their demands, prompting both parties to withdraw from the case.

"The aim here is an immediate condemnation of Sonko so as to deny him his civil rights," defence lawyer Cire Cledor Ly said.

Sonko's absence prevents lawyers from speaking on his behalf and means he will not be able to appeal if convicted.

Dakar was calm and rush hour traffic lighter than usual as many stayed home to avoid potential unrest.

Sonko and his party have encouraged supporters to take to the streets on trial days. Some crowds have become rowdy in the past, attacking supermarkets and petrol stations and clashing with riot police, who used tear gas.

The former tax inspector has become the face of growing frustration against President Macky Sall, accused of becoming increasingly repressive and failing to improve livelihoods since he took power in 2012. His government denies this.

Anger has flared over rumours Sall would use a new constitution, adopted in 2016, to bypass presidential limits and run for a third term in the upcoming February poll. He has neither confirmed nor denied this.

(Reporting by Ngouda Dione, Diadie Ba and Bate Felix;Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by George Obulutsa and Alexandra Hudson)