Burkina Faso: The defence has the floor in the Thomas Sankara trial

By Moustapha Gano
Posted on Tuesday, 29 March 2022 10:16

Resuming the Thomas Sankara assassination trial at the military court in Ouagadougou, 31 January 2022. © Sophie Garcia / Hans Lucas

Three weeks after being suspended at the defence lawyers’ request, the trial of the alleged killers of Burkina Faso’s former president Thomas Sankara has resumed in Ouagadougou. The lawyers of the accused plead, for the most part, the statute of limitations and find the evidence on file to be insufficient.

The trial of Thomas Sankara’s alleged killers resumed on 22 March, three weeks after it had been suspended and in an almost empty courtroom. The judges sat before a sparse audience, instead of the crowds that had gathered for the first hearings before the military court in Ouagadougou last October. However, Mariam Sankara, the assassinated former president’s widow, could always be found sitting in the front rows.

On 3 March, the lawyers of the 12 defendants, including the main one, General Gilbert Diendéré, had argued that Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba’s swearing in as president of Faso and the fact that the Constitutional Court had validated his investiture meant that the coup was de facto legal. The defence lawyers therefore feel that the charges levelled against their clients for undermining state security should be automatically lifted. On 18 March, the Constitutional Court finally ruled and rejected their request, thus paving the way for hearings to resume.

“Natural death” and “parody of a trial”

The defence has therefore had the floor since 22 March. Issiaka Ouattara, the defence of military doctor Alidou Diebré, who was accused of “forgery in public writing” for having written the words “natural death” on Sankara’s death certificate, pleaded the statute of limitations on the facts and asked for an acquittal. Moumouny Kopiho, the lawyer of Kafando Hamadou, who was accused of the same facts, but this time for stating on the icon of the Burkinabe revolution’s death certificate that he had suffered from an “accidental death”, also pleaded the statute of limitations.

Moumouny Kopiho, who went more on the offensive in defence of Colonel Major Jean-Pierre Palm, denounced a “parody of a trial”, even daring to speak of a “murder of the law.” The former gendarme – Blaise Compaoré appointed him as the gendarmerie’s commander-general following Sankara’s death – is accused of having, in the aftermath of the assassination, destroyed recordings of phone tappings that could potentially incriminate several figures. The prosecution and the civil parties’ lawyers both feel that this not only proof of active complicity in the murder but also of a desire to cover the perpetrators and sponsors’ tracks. Asserting that there was “no tangible proof” of these accusations, his lawyer instead painted a picture of a “brilliant officer”, an excellent gendarme who served his nation “with dedication.”

Diendéré’s double defence

For their part, the lawyers of the main defendant – present – in this case, General Diendéré, have deployed a two-pronged defence strategy, which consists of trying to demonstrate that the evidence is insufficient, on the one hand, and pleading the statute of limitations on the other. Me Mathieu Somé thus described it as “a withering away of the evidence that has crumbled,” even putting forward the notion of “the right to be forgotten”, in order to demand clemency for his client. While Abdoul Latif Dabo evoked, so long after the facts, “the testimony’s fragility.”

But, as has been the case since the beginning of this trial, it was above all the silence of those who were not present that resonated strongly in the courtroom. Although 12 men are facing the judges, 14 have been officially charged. Missing from the roll call are deposed former president Compaoré, who has been living in exile in Côte d’Ivoire since he was ousted from power in 2014, and Hyacinthe Kafando, former commander of his guard during the 1987 coup.

At the beginning of February, the military prosecutor’s office requested that each of the two men be sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment for attacks on state security, concealing a corpse and complicity in murder. The prosecution has also called for 20 years in prison for Gilbert Diendéré, who is already serving a 20-year sentence for the 2015 coup attempt. The prosecutor, who requested sentences ranging from three to 20 years in prison for the other co-accused, called for five of them to be acquitted. Two because of the statute of limitations, three because the charges levelled against them have – according to the prosecution – “not been established.”

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