OUAGADOUGOU – A military court in Burkina Faso on Monday started the trial of 14 people including former President Blaise Compaore for the killing of influential leftist leader Thomas Sankara, who was ousted as president by Compaore in a 1987 coup.
After opening the case, the military tribunal postponed it for two weeks.
Compaore is charged with complicity, undermining state security and concealing corpses, according to military documents seen by The Associated Press. He’s being tried in absentia from Ivory Coast, where he has been in exile since he was toppled in 2014.
Ivory Coast has refused to extradite Compaore since Burkina Faso put out a warrant for his arrest six years ago. Compaore’s former right-hand man Gen. Gilbert Diendere is among the accused and wore a military camouflage uniform at the opening of the trial Monday in Ouagadougou, the capital.
The trial, expected to last several months, is seen as a significant step toward determining the circumstances surrounding Sankara’s death, which has been shrouded in secrecy for nearly 35 years.
Sitting near the front of the courtroom with the families of other victims, Mariam Sankara, the ex-leader’s widow, said she expects justice to be served.
“I hope that this trial ... will be an example to show people they cannot kill without being held responsible in Burkina (Faso) and in other countries,” said Sankara.
“I am expecting (Gen. Diendere) to tell the truth. He must tell the truth," she said. "He is involved. I have no doubt about it.”
A lawyer for the victims' families said he hopes the trial will result in a factual account of what happened.
“What the victims and I are expecting to gain in this trial is truth and justice, because so far there are contradictory versions about what really happened,” lawyer Prosper Farama said.
“Soldiers need to understand once and for all that the power belongs to the people and that putschs are not legitimate,” he said.
Compaore’s lawyers said the former president will “not surrender” or attend the trial as he was never summoned for questioning before being charged, according to a statement seen by The Associated Press.
Sankara, a charismatic Marxist leader with a reputation as 'Africa's Che Guevara,' has had a lasting impact on the country, changing its name from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means “land of honest men” in the local Moore and Dioula languages.
Sankara's rule was marked by a socialist agenda of nationalizations and his government outlawed female genital mutilation, polygamy and forced marriages. He remains highly regarded among left-wing Africanists for his defiance of Western powers.
Sankara came to power in 1983 at the age of 33 after he and Compaore led a leftist coup that overthrew a moderate military faction. But in 1987 Compaore turned on his former friend in a coup in which he seized power and then ruled the country with an iron fist for 27 years before being ousted in an uprising. He now lives in exile in neighboring Ivory Coast.
Those who worked with Sankara remember him as a committed leader with a meticulous eye for detail.
“Whenever he arrived at the presidential palace, even before entering his office, he would check the security guards to see if they were well dressed ... (he would) make sure they were not wearing torn or unironed outfits,” Ali Bernard Baro, a former security officer for Sankara, told AP.
The trial comes as Burkina Faso is experiencing escalating violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State, which has killed thousands, displaced more than 1.4 million people and divided a country once known for the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims.
President Roch Marc Christian Kabore made reconciliation a cornerstone of his November reelection campaign. Political analysts say the trial of those charged with Sankara's death is a significant, symbolic step, its impact will be limited given that Compaore, the main accused, will be absent, said Alexandre Raymakers, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk consultancy.
Rights groups say the trial’s success will depend on its impartiality.
“This is an important victory for all those who fight against impunity in Burkina Faso," said Chrysogone Zougmore, president of the Burkinabe Movement for Human Rights. "The other part of our expectations is that the justice system does its work with professionalism and independence.”