The government of Senegal said on Friday that it had shut down some social media platforms as a result of clashes between protesters and security forces a day earlier which it said had left at least nine people dead.
Demonstrators had taken to the streets across the West African nation on Thursday shortly after a court acquitted a leading opposition figure, Ousmane Sonko, on charges of rape and making death threats, but convicted him on the lesser charge of “corrupting youth.” Mr. Sonko was sentenced to two years in prison in a case that his supporters said was politically motivated.
The violence brought tensions in the largely peaceful country to a new high. Periodic clashes have sporadically broken out since the arrest of Mr. Sonko in 2021 after a massage parlor employee accused him of rape.
The Senegal interior minister, Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome, said the deaths on Thursday had occurred in Dakar, the capital, and in Ziguinchor, a southern city where Mr. Sonko is mayor. In 2021, at least 14 people were killed in clashes that followed his arrest.
Mr. Diome said that blocking of the social media outlets was justified because calls to violence and hatred were circulating through them.
On Friday morning, Dakar and other cities remained calm as many Senegalese waited to see what would happen next.
Security forces stationed around Mr. Sonko’s house in Dakar have prevented him from leaving for days. They have also, without warning, thrown tear gas at journalists, lawmakers and residents walking nearby.
Mr. Sonko, a 48-year-old former tax inspector, is popular among younger people and has branded himself as the main opponent of President Macky Sall. Mr. Sonko has accused the president of using court cases to sideline him. In return, the government has accused Mr. Sonko of calling for an insurrection and threatening Senegal’s public order.
Justice Minister Ismaïla Madior Fall told reporters on Thursday that Mr. Sonko could be arrested at any time.
For now, the sentence bars him from running in next year’s presidential election and he is not allowed to appeal the verdict because he was not present in court for the trial. But two of his lawyers and Mr. Fall, the justice minister, said that Mr. Sonko could secure a retrial if he surrendered or was imprisoned.
Senegal has long taken pride in its culture of peaceful dialogue, political pluralism and the absence of coups since gaining independence from France in 1960. But human rights defenders and political observers have raised questions about the arrests of journalists and dozens of political opponents in recent years, as well as the criminal charges brought against major opposition figures, including Mr. Sonko.
“There are expectations in the Senegalese democratic culture that the judiciary should be independent,” said Catherine Lena Kelly, an expert on Senegalese politics at the African Center for Strategic Studies, a research group that is part of the United States Defense Department. “But there have been grievances during the Sall presidency about what some citizens consider to be the state selectively charging opposition leaders with criminal offenses.”
Babacar Ndiaye, a political analyst in Senegal, said that to his knowledge, the social media blackout was a first in the country.
“It’s surprising to say the least,” Mr. Ndiaye, the research and publication director at Wathi, a Dakar-based research organization, said on Friday. “Social media have always been a space of free expression in Senegal, including yesterday when people exchanged information in real time about the clashes and the law enforcement response.”
As of Friday morning, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and WhatsApp were not working, and many Senegalese had switched to virtual private networks, which get around such bans by masking a user’s location. “This is where we’re now at in Senegal,” Mr. Ndiaye said.