OUAGADOUGOU – A Burkina Faso military tribunal has sentenced ex-President Blaise Compaore to life imprisonment for complicity in the murder of his predecessor Thomas Sankara in 1987 and for undermining state security.
Compaore was tried in absentia as he has been in exile in Ivory Coast since he was toppled from power by a popular uprising in 2014.
Compaore’s right-hand man Gilbert Diendere and former spy chief Tousma Yacinthe Kafando were also given life sentences. Diendere is already serving a prison sentence for an attempted coup in 2015 and Kafando is at large.
Fourteen people were charged for Sankara’s killing in the trial which began in October. Eight other people were found guilty of a range of charges including giving false testimonies and complicity in undermining state security. Three were found not guilty including the doctor accused of forging Sankara’s death certificate to say he died of natural causes.
There were gasps in the packed courtroom when the verdict of life imprisonment for Compaore was announced, with Sankara's supporters shaking hands, pumping fists in the air and chanting.
Seated near the front, Sankara’s widow Mariam Sankara told The Associated Press that justice had been served.
“The judges have done their jobs and I am satisfied. Of course, I wished the main suspects would be here before the judges,” she said. “It is not good that people kill other people and stop the process of development of a country without being punished.”
The long-awaited trial, nearly 35 years after Sankara and 12 other people were killed, was hailed by many rights activists as a major step for justice in Burkina Faso.
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.
While the verdict will help address the scars left by Sankara's death, his assassination remains a highly sensitive topic in the country. Of the three people sentenced to life in prison only Diendere is likely to serve any time, said Alexandre Raymakers senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk consultancy.
“Compaore remains in exile in the Ivory Coast and is unlikely to be extradited while Kafando remains at large,” he said.
Even though it's unlikely Compaore will go to prison, many people in Burkina Faso felt his conviction was a victory.
“All the plotters of assassinating Thomas Sankara are condemned and this is historical for all Burkinabe,” said Stanislas Damiba who attended the trial.
But for some in Sankara’s family the verdict is not be enough.
“It’s a relief, it’s not a satisfaction, it will never be a satisfaction,” Paul Sankara, the younger brother, told AP by phone from the United States where he lives. “If you put what has been done on October 15, (1987) and the verdict, it cannot cover what’s happened. They have been murdered, assassinated so we will have that inside of us as a family."
The defense has 15 days to appeal the sentence. Eliane Marie Kabore, a lawyer for one of the accused said she wasn’t happy about the verdict but wasn’t sure yet if they’d appeal.
Prosper Farama, a lawyer for the Sankara family, told AP that the trial brought a “big relief to all the people of Burkina Faso” because now the country could move on to other things.
In the past two years, Burkina Faso has been ravaged by jihadist attacks that have killed thousands and displaced nearly 2 million people and the violence shows no signs of abating. At least 100 people were killed in attacks in the last two weeks of March, according to a security report for aid groups seen by The Associated Press.
On Tuesday, an 83-year-old American nun, Marianite Sister Suellen Tennyson was kidnapped by armed men in the Center North region, she’d been living there since 2014, according to a statement by the Diocese of Kaya.