By Agence France-Presse
Senegalese Muslim leader Sheikh Bethio Thioune died in France on Tuesday, a day after he was sentenced in absentia to 10 years of hard labour for abetting the murder of two followers, one of his lawyers said.
The high criminal court in Mbour, south of Dakar, found the influential head of a branch of the Mouride Brotherhood guilty of failing to denounce a crime and of being an accomplice to murder seven years ago.
“It has been confirmed to me that Sheikh Bethio Thioune died in France on Tuesday,” lawyer Mouhamadou Moustapha Dieng told AFP, following reports of his death in the Senegalese media.
There was no official confirmation of Thioune’s death in Senegal or France.
Thioune’s deputy, Sheikh Faye, was convicted of the same charges and received the same sentence from the court in the coastal town about 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Dakar.
Ten other defendants also received lengthy hard labour sentences.
Thioune claimed he was innocent of the charges and had said he would return to Senegal to defend himself once his health improved.
The charges against Thioune and his followers in Senegal ranged from murder entailing barbaric acts, criminal association, receiving and burying corpses without authorisation, possessing weapons illegally and failing to report a crime.
The case was widely followed in the West African country, where 90 percent of the population are Muslims, and the Mouride Brotherhood is a Sufi order of Islam that wields considerable political sway.
Thioune was arrested on April 23, 2012, a day after the deaths of two followers whose savagely beaten bodies were found 800 metres (yards) from his house in the village of Keur Samba Laobe, western Senegal.
When the trial began exactly five years after the arrest, one of the sheikh’s defence attorneys, El Hadji Mamadou Ndiaye, said he had barred one of the victims from entering his home.
The man, according to this account, had been accused of zealously worshipping Thioune and even comparing him to God — an act of sacrilege.
He refused to obey the ban on entering the residence, which prompted Thioune’s outraged supporters to kill him and one of his friends, the lawyer said.
Thioune was freed on bail in February 2013 and has been in Bordeaux, southwest rance, for medical treatment since the start of this year.
The court announced that he would not be summoned “because of his age” — he was around 80 — but seized his assets and awarded 100 million CFA francs (about 152,500 euros, $171,000) to the heirs of each murdered man.
Thioune, who also has followers in Europe and the United States, had 29 children and seven wives according to official documents.