(Editor's note: Paragraphs two and three contain offensive comments)
DAKAR (Reuters) - Senegalese women's groups and dozens of well-known figures on Friday accused opposition leader Ousmane Sonko of insulting a woman who has accused him of rape, saying his comments showed he was unfit for higher office.
Sonko, 48, is embroiled in a legal saga he says is politically motivated. In a livestreamed speech on Wednesday following a court hearing into the case, he repeated his protestations of innocence in the ongoing trial and said "even if I had to rape, I would not rape someone who looks like a monkey that has had a stroke."
"Do you think that I, Ousmane Sonko, am so in need of a woman that I would rape a woman?"
In a joint open letter, the signatories, which included over 30 prominent academics, campaigners and artists, said "these remarks reinforce and normalise the culture of rape and are unworthy of a man who aspires to the highest office in our country."
"We call on all women's rights organisations and opinion leaders to condemn these dehumanising and insulting comments towards women."
Sonko, who has a substantial following among young voters, also faced some backlash to the remarks online.
His team did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.
Senegal's opposition coalition Yewwi Askan Wi planned to rally in the capital Dakar in support of Sonko on Friday, but the demonstration was not authorised and did not take place.
The charges against him have sparked sporadic and sometimes violent protests over the last two years, undermining Senegal's image as one of West Africa's most stable democracies.
He is accused of sexually assaulting and making death threats to a woman who worked in a massage parlour in 2021. He denies wrongdoing and has boycotted the court proceedings. The authorities deny his accusations that this trial and another libel case are politically motivated.
On Wednesday, a prosecutor in the rape trial requested a 10-year prison sentence. If he is found guilty, this would likely bar him from running for the presidency in the February election.
The letter's signatories said Sonko's dismissive attitude to the trial set a dangerous example to his young supporters, undermining progress in a country that only classified rape as a serious crime in 2019.
"We welcome the trial and salute the (accuser's) courage and resilience," they said. "Despite ostracism, demonisation and death threats, she held on. Every citizen deserves justice."
(Reporting by Diadie Ba; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)