A future contender for president and the son of a former head of state in Senegal was sentenced on Monday to six years in prison and a $230 million fine for "illegal enrichment," in a move that threatens to divide the country's already fractious political landscape.
The court's ruling against Karim Wade came just two days after the Senegalese Democratic Party (Parti Démocratique Sénégalais, or PDS) — Senegal's main opposition party — nominated the 46-year-old as its presidential candidate in the 2017 elections. Wade, who is the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, served as the country's Minister of State for International Cooperation, Regional Development, Air Transport, and Infrastructure from 2009 to 2012.
Wade, who has been in detention since 2013, was accused of squirreling away close to $1.4 billion in offshore companies based in tax havens like the British Virgin Islands and Panama, as well as real estate ventures. According to the court, Wade amassed his funds over the course of his father's 12-year rule, from 2000 to 2012, investing the money in businesses, property, and vehicles.
Wade junior, who is known in Senegal as "the minister of heaven and earth" because of his incredible wealth, has denied the accusations and described himself as being a "political prisoner" since the beginning of his trial, which kicked off in July 2014.
The guilty verdict has angered Wade's supporters, who have accused current President Macky Sall of manipulating the legal system to hinder Wade's candidacy in the 2017 presidential elections. President Sall said last week that the government would not tolerate any attempt to destabilize the country following the ruling.
AFP journalists in Senegal's capital Dakar reported a heavy police presence outside the courthouse, where dozens of Wade supporters gathered to protest the ruling. According to the media outlet, demonstrators screamed and cried as the verdict was read out.
Former president Abdoulay Wade was in court for the first time since the start of the trial, but the verdict was boycotted by the defendant, who has repeatedly claimed he is the victim of a political "witch hunt."
Later Monday, the politician's supporters gathered outside the Wade family home in Dakar, chanting "Free Karim," and were addressed from the balcony by the former president Wade.
Karim Wade was tried before the Court of Repression of Illicit Enrichment (CREI), a legal body that was launch in 1981 and has been dormant since 1983. The court was reactivated in 2012 as part of president Sall's anti-corruption campaign. The CREI has come under fire for its dubious human rights record, and several watchdogs have said the court does not guarantee defendants a fair trial, particularly since it lacks a statutory appeal process.
Karim Wade's attorneys have vowed to file an appeal with Senegal's supreme court.
Many fear Wade's sentencing could further inflame political tensions in the country. In February, Wade's lawyer Amadou Lamine Sall was arrested after threatening Senegal's president directly, declaring that, "If Mack Sall sends Karim Wade to prison, he won't spend another night in the [presidential] palace."
Wade's colleagues within the PDS have also voiced their support for their candidate, with one party official telling French daily Le Monde she was "prepared to die for Karim to be free."
Back in January, the older Wade had flouted an official ban on a public gathering in support of his son, when his vehicle sped through a police barricade to head to a demonstration on the Obelisque square in central Dakar. After weathering the police tear gas, Wade climbed onto the roof of his car and held his arms up as a sign of victory. The former then president urged the people of Senegal to ignore the official ban on protests, and to continue to put pressure on the authorities for the release of his son.
According to Al Jazeera's Nicolas Haque, the recent verdict prevent Wade from running in the next elections.
The French and US embassies have called for vigilance, and urged their citizens not to travel to areas of Dakar where protests might take place.
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho
Photo via rignese / Wikimedia Commons