Woman pays dearly for accusing Senegal opposition leader of rape
Adji Sarr, who has accused Senegal's opposition leader of rape, has learned the consequences of speaking the hard way about sexual abuse in the conservative West African country.
Sarr, in her early twenties, told police in February that opposition leader Ousmane Sonko had forced her to sleep with him several times and threatened reprisals if she refused.
The move sparked a political firestorm in Senegal: Sonko's subsequent arrest sparked the worst unrest the normally quiet country had seen in years.
Thousands of mostly young people took to the streets in nationwide demonstrations that killed at least 10 people. The protesters also ransacked shops, threw stones at the police and set cars on fire during the demonstrations.
The unrest didn't ease until a judge released Sonko in March and President Macky Sall lifted unpopular restrictions on coronavirus.
For Sonko's supporters, his legal troubles fit a pattern of politically motivated lawsuits against rivals of the president. Many also believe that Sarr made up the charge.
46-year-old Sonko, a devout Muslim who harshly criticizes Senegal's elite, denies the charges against him and accuses Sall of constructing them - which the president denied.
According to her lawyers, Sarr has since gone into hiding out of fear for her own safety.
Some fear the controversy is preventing other women from talking about sexual abuse.
"The victims will say to themselves, 'If I talk about what I endured, won't I suffer the same fate as Adji Sarr?" said the Senegalese sociologist Selly Ba.
- I try to "demonize" them -
According to a 2017 report by the country's statistics agency, more than eight percent of Senegalese women report having suffered sexual violence.
Rape used to be classified as a crime under Senegalese law. But the government criminalized rape of 16 million people in 2019 after multiple widespread sexual abuse incidents in the nation.
Rape convictions now have a maximum life sentence.
However, the shift in attitudes towards rape in the Muslim majority country did not seem to catch up with Sarr - even some feminist organizations were reluctant to look into the matter.
The Senegalese writer Hamidou Anne told AFP that Sarr had been deleted and "discredited" during the politicized debate about Sonko.
Sarr himself responded to doubters in a television interview in March. "If Ousmane Sonko has never slept with me, make him swear on the Koran," she said.
"The judiciary has to do its job," added Sarr. "I'm in a hurry because I'm not free".
After the protests, a Senegalese television producer wrote a script for a fictional series modeled on the Sarr affair, but dropped the project in April.
One of Sarr's lawyers, El Hadji Diou, said the script portrayed the protagonist "as a prostitute".
"I find it cruel, inhuman and shameful," he said at the time, adding that some people were trying to "demonize (and) discredit" his clients.
- "Future of women's rights" -
Francoise-Helene Gaye, a woman who started a collective in support of Sarr, said she came under pressure to deny the young woman.
She added that she had received messages of support from rape survivors.
The controversy surrounding Sarr's accusation is likely to deter women from filing rape complaints against powerful men, according to Senegalese sociologist Cheikh Niang.
Although Sonko has been released, the rape lawsuit persists. It is not clear when he will be on trial.
Feminist activist Maimouna Yade said the ongoing trials against the opposition leader offered hope and that she wanted a solution that was "fair to both parties".
"Civil society must monitor the progress of this case very closely, it is crucial for the future of women's rights in our country," said Yade.
mnm / siu / lal / eml / dl
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