DAKAR - The mayor of Dakar is standing trial for corruption. The case is politically charged, as Khalifa Sall, who has been in jail for almost a year, was still elected to a seat in the National Assembly in July and is seen as a presidential contender in 2019. Now all eyes are of the courthouse, where Sall’s trial began this week.
Crowds of people elbowed their way into Dakar’s main courthouse, the Palais de Justice, Tuesday to witness the arrival of Khalifa Sall, the city’s popular mayor and now defendant in a high-profile corruption case.
Sall has been behind bars since March of last year. He is charged with embezzling about $34 million in public funds between 2011 and 2015. He is also charged with criminal conspiracy, falsification of records, money laundering and fraud. Requests for bail have been denied.
State officials say Sall’s arrest was part of an ongoing push against corruption. But the mayor's supporters like Anta Diop have a different take.
“Khalifa has ambitions to become president,” she says, “and we are here to support him. This is why President Macky Sall has locked him up,” said Diop.
The courtroom was packed and security tight as the trial opened with heated debates.
Sall’s lawyers denounced the proceedings, claiming a series of fundamental rights were violated.
Maitre Seydou Diagne, one of Khalifa Sall’s attorneys, says
the mayor was refused access to lawyers during preliminary investigations and has been denied his right to parliamentary immunity. Diagne says “There is a set of international standards that make a trial fair, and Senegal must guarantee these standards.”
State prosecutor Maitre Papa Moussa Felix Sow dismisses the accusations.
He says “white-collar criminals are used to discrediting procedures and to making people believe their human rights are not being respected.”
So far, one could argue that Khalifa Sall’s incarceration has not tarnished his image. His party made use of it during the legislative elections last July, winning seven seats in the National Assembly.
Stark posters dotted the capital with slogans like “Dakar in chains” and “Khalifa in prison. Khalifa in our hearts. Khalifa in our voting boxes.”
Moussa Tine, the president of the Pencoo Democratic Alliance, a political party in Sall’s coalition, says the state is now rushing Sall’s trial to reach a verdict by June, when the electoral period for the 2019 presidential poll kicks off. “It is a political tactic to neutralize a rival,” says Tine.
But for Maitre Sow, the state prosecutor, seeking to delay the proceedings is just as political.
He says “the attorneys are clearly doing everything possible for Khalifa not to be convicted before the elections. So I ask you, who is doing politics here?”
Sall’s trial is the second high-profile case against corruption since President Macky Sall took office in 2012.
In 2015, Karim Wade, a former government minister and the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, was sentenced to six years in prison for illegal enrichment. He served half of his sentence before receiving a presidential pardon.
Supporters of Karim Wade are also urging him to run for president, but his legal status remains unclear, meaning the constitutional council would need to rule on his eligibility.
Khalifa Sall’s trial is set to take months, and there could be an appeal following the verdict. However it ends up, the case could have important implications for the 2019 presidential race.