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The landmark trial over death of Burkina revolutionary Sankara

By AFP
Africa Marxist-Leninist icon Thomas Sankara and 12 colleagues were gunned down by a hit squad in 1987.  By DANIEL LAINE AFPFile
JAN 21, 2022 LISTEN
Marxist-Leninist icon Thomas Sankara and 12 colleagues were gunned down by a hit squad in 1987. By DANIEL LAINE AFPFile

After three months of hearings, the landmark trial into the assassination of Burkina Faso's 1980s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara enters it final stage next Monday.

Marxist-Leninist icon Sankara and 12 colleagues were gunned down by a hit squad in 1987 during a coup that brought Sankara's former comrade, Blaise Compaore, to power. Compaore ruled the West African country for the next 27 years.

Here are some highlights from the a military court in the capital Ouagadougou. The proceedings are being followed avidly in Burkina, where the unpunished killings were a taboo subject during the Compaore years.

Conspicous by their absence

Twelve of the 14 suspects appeared in court when the trial began in October 2021, charged with complicity in murder, harming state security and complicity in the concealment of corpses.

But two of the key defendants -- Compaore himself and his then head of security, Hyacinthe Kafando -- have been conspicuous by their absence.

The former president, who was deposed by a popular uprising in 2014 and fled to neighbouring Ivory Coast, has always denied ordering Sankara's murder and is boycotting what his lawyers dismiss as a "political trial".

Kafando, who is accused of leading the commando that carried out the bloodbath at a meeting of Sankara's Revolutionary Council, has been on the run since 2016.

A third key suspect, 61-year-old general Gilbert Diendere, has categorically denied the charges against him, as have all but one of the other defendants.

One of the key suspects, 61-year-old general Gilbert Diendere, has categorically denied the charges against him.  By OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT AFPFile One of the key suspects, 61-year-old general Gilbert Diendere, has categorically denied the charges against him. By OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT AFPFile

Diendere, who became Compaore's right-hand man after the putsch, is already serving a 20-year sentence for a 2015 plot to overthrow the transitional government that replaced his former boss.

Souring relations

Ballistics experts told the trial Sankara had been shot in the chest at least seven times by assassins using tracer bullets. When fired, the bullets ignite a burning powder, helping the shooter mark their target.

But the defendants said the victims died in a botched attempt to arrest Sankara after he and Compaore fell out over the direction the country's revolution was taking.

Sankara allies, including ex-military commander Blaise Sanou, accused Compaore -- whose bid to cling to office precipitated his 2014 downfall -- of being hungry for power in 1987.

But political analyst Valere Some said it was Sankara's decision to move to one-party rule that had sparked the rift between the two.

Sankara, still a revered figure for many, was an army captain, aged just 33, when he came to power in a 1983 coup.

A fiery revolutionary, he railed against imperialism and colonialism, often angering Western leaders but gaining followers across Africa and beyond.

He scrapped the country's French colonial name -- Upper Volta -- and pursued a socialist agenda of nationalisations and social reforms, including bans on female genital mutilation, polygamy and forced marriages.

Accusations of conspiracy

In court, several of Sankara's former aides talked of an "international conspiracy" against a progressive leader who had sought to upend the world order and eradicate poverty in his landlocked state.

Felix Houphouet Boigny, the then president of Ivory Coast and a close ally of former colonial power France, was accused of being "central to the conspiracy".

Former Burkina television director Serge Theophile Balima said the late Ivorian leader had warned Sankara, "If you don't change, we'll do it for you."

Like suicide

Other witnesses said there had been a terrible inevitability to Sankara's death.

"(It) was like suicide because he knew what was coming and he did nothing to prevent it," recalled Boukary Kabore, then commander of the advanced airborne battalion.

Sankara's security chief Famoro Ouattara said he "had been warned about the danger he faced", but had "never let anyone challenge Compaore militarily... It's as if he wanted to be killed."

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