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Ousmane Sonko and Bassirou Diomaye Faye: Senegal opposition leaders freed days before election

Senegal’s opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and the presidential candidate he is backing in this month’s delayed election, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, have been released from prison.

The two met thousands of their jubilant supporters in the capital, Dakar, after their release late on Thursday.

Their release followed an amnesty announced by President Macky Sall.

The elections are due to be held on 24 March after a failed bid to push them to December.

“It’s the most beautiful day of my life,” one supporter of the released pair told the BBC.

Mr Faye, 44, is one of the 19 candidates contesting the elections and is expected to start campaigning this Friday. He is vying through the Diomaye President coalition party.

Yacine Fall, vice-president of Mr Sonko’s disbanded Pastef party which is now supporting Mr Faye, said: “We are very pleased with their release”.

“They should have never gone to jail, but now, with Ousmane Sonko’s release and our candidate, Bachirou Diomaye Faye, we will be able to campaign, and we are sure we will win this.”

Despite spending months in prison, Mr Faye is seen as one of the favourites in this month’s election.

He was detained without trial last April on charges including inciting insurrection.

Mr Sonko, 49, has been one of President Sall’s fiercest critics. He was jailed for two years last July on what he described as trumped-up charges aimed at barring him from running for president.

He was found to have acted immorally towards a 20-year-old massage therapist, but was cleared of raping her. His sentencing set off deadly clashes between police and Mr Sonko’s protesting supporters, leaving more than a dozen dead.

Despite the amnesty, the list of candidates remains unchanged, meaning Mr Sonko will not be contesting in the elections.

The firebrand opposition politician is particularly popular among young, unemployed Senegalese for promising radical reforms.

He came in third in the 2019 presidential election with 15% of the vote.

In early 2023, he founded the Pastef-Les Patriotes party but it was dissolved by the government a few months later over allegations that Mr Sonko and the party had called for an insurrection.

Mr Sonko’s critics have accused his movement of stoking division and tension.

Senegal was originally scheduled to hold elections on 25 February but the poll was postponed to 24 March after a court ruling barred President Sall from pushing it to December.

President Sall is standing down after serving two terms.

His ruling coalition party Benno Bokk Yakaar (BBY) has picked 62-year-old Amadou Ba to run for the presidency. After serving as Senegal’s foreign minister and prime minister until 6 March, he is also seen as one of the favourites.

Senegal has been considered one of West Africa’s most stable countries but a succession of court cases against Mr Sonko and then the postponement of the elections sparked violent protests and widespread social unrest in recent months.

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