Senegal’s top opposition leader freed from prison ahead of presidential election this month

Supporters celebrate the release of Senegal's top opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and his key ally Bassirou Diomaye Faye outside Sonko's home in Dakar, Senegal, Thursday, March 14, 2024. Sonko had been in prison since July 2023 and has fought a prolonged legal battle to run for president in the March 24 election.(AP Photo/Sylvain Cherkaoui)

Supporters celebrate the release of Senegal’s top opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and his key ally Bassirou Diomaye Faye outside Sonko’s home in Dakar, Senegal, Thursday, March 14, 2024. Sonko had been in prison since July 2023 and has fought a prolonged legal battle to run for president in the March 24 election.(AP Photo/Sylvain Cherkaoui)

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Senegal’s top opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was released from jail late Thursday ahead of the presidential election later this month, triggering jubilant celebrations across the capital.

Sonko is widely seen as the main challenger to President Macky Sall’s ruling party. He was greeted outside the prison by crowds of supporters waving flags, chanting and holding up posters.

Sonko had been in prison since July and has fought a prolonged legal battle to run for president in the March 24 election. Sonko and his key ally, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, were both set free, his lawyer Bamba Cisse told The Associated Press.

It wasn’t immediately clear how their releases would impact the election. Faye was named the opposition’s election candidate after Sonko was barred from running.

Supporters also gathered at Sonko’s house and at other locations in Dakar to celebrate. Convoys of supporters drove around the capital tooting their horns and yelling until late at night.

Sonko, who finished third in the 2019 presidential election, is popular among young people and his fiery campaign to tackle corruption has resonated in a country with economic hardship. The war in Ukraine has pushed up food and energy prices, further straining the economy.

Sall himself ultimately decided not to seek a third term in office after Sonko’s supporters launched months of protests that at times turned deadly. The protests have rocked Senegal’s image as a pillar of stability in West Africa, where dozens of coups and attempted coups have taken place in recent decades.

Sonko’s presidential bid has faced a prolonged legal battle that started when he was accused of rape in 2021. He was acquitted of the rape charges but was convicted of corrupting youth and sentenced to two years in prison last summer, which ignited deadly protests across the country.

In January, he was disqualified from the ballot because he faces a six-month suspended sentence following his conviction for defamation, Senegal’s highest election authority, the Constitutional Council, said at the time.

Sonko’s supporters maintain his legal troubles are part of a government effort to derail his candidacy. His release follows Sall’s decree to exonerate political prisoners, including hundreds that were arrested in the violent protests last year.

Presidential candidates kicked off their election campaigns on Saturday, following weeks of violent protests after the vote was delayed.

Sall tried to postpone the election last month, just weeks before it was to take place on Feb. 25. His announcement that the vote would instead be held 10 months from now plunged Senegal into uncertainty and drew protesters to the streets again. But the Constitutional Council, rejected Sall’s postponement and ordered the government to set a new date as soon as possible.

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