DAKAR Karim Wade, son of Senegal's former president Abdoulaye Wade, appeared in court on Thursday to face corruption charges in a high-stakes case that has raised tensions in one of Africa's most stable democracies.
Wade, a former minister and one of the most powerful men in Senegal during his father's 2000-12 government, is accused of illegally amassing a fortune of 117 billion CFA francs ($239 million).
The defendant arrived in a crowded courtroom wearing a white tunic and a broad smile. He punched the air with his fists as supporters chanted "Free Karim". One cried out "President". A smaller group shouted "thief, thief" from the courtroom gallery.
Asked his identity by the court's president, Wade responded: "Banker, but currently political prisoner".
Wade has already been held in provisional detention for more than a year in Dakar, drawing criticism from the defense and some human rights groups.
He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. A defense lawyer said it was a complex case with 47,000 pages of documents.
Developments in Wade's trial are likely to affect the political fortunes of President Macky Sall, elected on a strong anti-corruption platform. Wade's supporters accuse Sall of using the trial as a witch hunt to discredit his political rivals in the defeated Senegalese Democratic Party.
In an indication of tensions, a man in the crowd disrupted the trial by shouting "corrupt magistrate" at the judge, before being escorted out of the gallery by security forces.
Lawyers for the defense said they were outraged by the decision to bring before the court Wade's co-defendant Ibrahim Abou Khalil, a businessman of Lebanese origins nicknamed 'Bibo Bourgi', whom they say is too ill to stand trial following a recent operation.
Abou Khalil appeared in court on Thursday with a drip and accompanied by a nurse.
But a lawyer for the government accused the defense of seeking to delay the case.
"From the start, what we have seen is the defense doing everything possible to prevent this trial from taking place," Moussa Felix Sow told Reuters. "But it needs to advance, because it's an important case for the region, and for Africa".
($1 = 490.0000 Central African CFA Franc BEACs)
(Reporting by Diadie Ba and Emma Farge; Editing by Daniel Flynn/Mark Heinrich)