After 34 years, Sankara murder trial begins in Burkina Faso

FILE PHOTO: The grave of former Burkina Faso president Thomas Sankara is seen in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, November 25, 2014. REUTERS/Joe Penney

OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) -The trial of 14 people accused of plotting the assassination of Burkina Faso's former president Thomas Sankara started on Monday, 34 years after he was gunned down in one of the most infamous killings in modern African history.

Sankara - a charismatic Marxist revolutionary widely known as "Africa's Che Guevara" - was killed in 1987 during a coup led by his former ally Blaise Compaore.

Compaore, who went on to rule the West African nation for almost three decades before he himself was ousted and fled to neighbouring Ivory Coast, has been charged with complicity in absentia. He has denied any involvement in Sankara's death.

"It is a moment we have been waiting for," Sankara's widow, Mariam Sankara, told journalists as she arrived at the hearing.

"This trial is needed so that the culture of impunity and violence that still rages in many African countries, despite the democratic facade, stops indefinitely."

The military tribunal opened the proceedings, then adjourned the hearing until Oct. 25, after defence lawyers asked for more time to prepare their case, court officials said.

Compaore's former head of security, Hyacinthe Kafando, is also being tried in his absence. Twelve other defendants appeared at the hearing in the Ouaga2000 conference centre in the capital, Ouagadougou. They have pleaded not guilty.

One of them, Gen. Gilbert Diendere, a former spy-master already serving a 20-year sentence on charges of involvement in a short-lived coup in 2015, attended the trial in camouflage army fatigues.

Thomas Sankara seized power in a 1983 coup at the age of 33 with promises to tackle corruption and the dominance of former colonial powers.

The former fighter pilot was one of the first African leaders to raise awareness about the growing AIDS epidemic. He publicly denounced the World Bank's structural adjustment programmes and banned female circumcision and polygamy.

Sankara won public support with his modest lifestyle, riding to work on a bicycle during his time as a minister and selling the government's fleet of Mercedes vehicles when he was president.

But critics said his reforms curtailed freedoms and left ordinary people in the landlocked West African country little better off.

Compaore's lawyers said on Friday that he would not attend the trial, and Ivory Coast has refused to extradite him.

(Reporting by Thiam Ndiaga Writing by Cooper Inveen Editing by Bate Felix and Andrew Heavens)

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