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Representing an African Revolutionary: French Lawyer Defends Thomas Sankara in Assassination Trial

Anta Guissé has spent most of her 20-year career as a criminal defense lawyer, including working at the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, above, where she was on a team defending an alleged Hezbollah militant, but the case was dropped because the tribunal’s mandate ended. Now she is on the other side of the fence, representing the family of Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso who was assassinated in a 1987 coup, in a new trial prosecuting 14 people for his murder. 

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Anta Guissé has spent a large part of her 20-year career defending people accused of war crimes in countries like Rwanda, Cambodia and the Central African Republic before United Nations-backed international tribunals and the International Criminal Court.

Now Guissé, a lawyer based in Paris, has switched to the prosecution in a case she describes as not a “sentimental” act. Her clients are the family of Thomas Sankara, a Marxist revolutionary leader who became president of Burkina Faso and was assassinated during a coup d’état, along with 12 of his associates, in 1987.

Guissé, who was born in France to a Martiniquaise mother and a Senegalese father, says she believes “every accused person deserves a defense lawyer whatever the charges.”

“The judicial truth is the sum of multiple individual truths,” Guissé adds, and participating in the defense “is an active part of the process.”

The prime suspect among the 14 people on trial is Blaise Compaoré, Sankara’s military comrade and friend, who succeeded him before being ousted 27 years later during a popular uprising in 2014. Over the next four months, as the tribunal in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, prepares to hear 100 witnesses and churn through 20,000 pages of evidence, Compaoré is refusing to recognize the process and ignoring calls for his extradition from neighboring Ivory Coast.

PassBlue spoke with Guissé in person in Ouagdougou recently about why she took on this case pro bono and what might be expected from this highly anticipated trial, which began on Oct. 11, was delayed for a few weeks and reopens on Oct. 25.

PassBlue: Tell me how you came to be involved in the Sankara case.

Guissé: For years, there has been a campaign for justice for Thomas Sankara, and one of the coordinators approached me because of my experience in international law. I started working on the case around 2018.

The fight for a trial for the assassination of Sankara and his companions started around 25 years ago. Along the way, there was a fight to even be able to file a complaint. There were several legal decisions — it’s funny now, when you have Blaise Compaoré saying that it is impossible to be judged by this specific exceptional jurisdiction, because the family filed before the regular civil courts during his regime and were told that the other courts have no jurisdiction. Then it went up to the [United Nations] Human Rights Committee. The HRC said the state of Burkina Faso didn’t do all that was necessary to give justice to the family and it was a way to keep the case open. After that, there was obviously the insurrection and the change of the political leadership and there was this previous decision by the court that said that the case had to be heard before a military tribunal.

PassBlue: Did the decision by the Human Rights Committee have any impact?

Guissé: At least Burkina Faso was found guilty of not having done what was necessary, and after there was a change of policy. They were bound to do something, and that was when the Minister of Defense said that he [supported] a military tribunal.

PassBlue: The basic outcome of the decision by the Human Rights Committee was that they had to do an investigation and hand over the body?

Guissé: Yes, because it was a violation of the rights of the family, not being able to have answers on where the body was. . . . I don’t know what would have happened if there had been no change of government.

PassBlue: You have defended men who are accused of war crimes. Why have you taken these cases on, and how is Sankara’s case different?

Guissé: I am a defense lawyer and believe in the principle that every accused person deserves a defense lawyer whatever the charges — that is how I took my oath. I also believe that a trial is the place to understand what happened, and that the judicial truth is the sum of multiple individual truths. Being on the defense is an active part of the process.

When it comes to the Sankara case, by being on the side of civil parties and the family, we are playing a role in deepening an understanding of a part of the history of a country and a man who had a great impact on the continent and the diaspora. I admired the man, his integrity and what he tried to achieve. I think any African or person of African descent who was aware of the politics in Africa [laughing] would have worshipped Thomas Sankara at some point. His murder [at age 37] killed the hopes of thousands and thousands of people. Burkina showed that even if you are a small country, you can be self-sufficient in terms of food and you can have a revolution that puts the people in front. It’s a special case for me, and for once [laughing], I am not serving on the defense. It’s special because the image of Sankara during our teenage years, the pictures of him and the way he thought, was so ahead of its time. It’s not a case like any other. He was an African leader who was against corruption and who couldn’t be corrupted, who had at heart the future of his country and even Africa, and that is something you have in mind when you take a case like this.

PassBlue: Do you remember when you were first exposed to Sankara’s ideas?

Guissé: I was in Paris, but I had militant parents, very leftist, and they had comrades from Burkina, so it was thrilling for the people who were concerned about their country and the future of Africa. My father was in a Marxist political party in Senegal. My mother was from Martinique and was a Communist.

PassBlue: Tell me a bit about the particularities of the Burkina Faso court: What is different about it and why is the case unique in terms of its civilian-military hybrid nature?

Guissé: People have this fantasy of the military court; it is not a court martial. It is a court that is in Burkina Faso’s legal system, but its president and assessor are civil judges.

PassBlue: Is this the first case like this for the court?

Guissé: This jurisdiction already existed. Gilbert Diendéré [who led a failed putsch after the people’s revolt in 2015] was tried before this court. There’s also a specific court for the military, which adheres to the penal code.

PassBlue: Will there be any evidence or witness testimony people haven’t seen before?

Guissé: Yes, of course. The thing is, there was no investigation for years. There are things that were known and there were other things that were not. I think the public will discover new things from the trial.

PassBlue: Alouna Traoré was the only survivor of the shooting. Was he the only witness as well?

Guissé: There are the things that happened at the Conseil de l’Entente [West Africa’s regional co-operation forum] and the people who were direct witnesses of the shooting, and people who were witnesses or what happened before and after. There were witness of the steps in the chain of events –for example, the people who buried the bodies.

PassBlue: I imagine before all this, people were afraid to speak.

Guissé: Some people were relieved to finally speak. Before, what could you do if you thought there was no point and there was no will to investigate the case properly?

The unveiling ceremony of the Thomas Sankara memorial, October 2019, in Ouagadougou. The statue of Burkina’s most famous revolutionary stands where he was assassinated, at the Conseil de l’Entente, along with 12 of his companions on Oct. 15, 1987. CLAIR MACDOUGALL

PassBlue: Are you concerned about witness intimidation — as was the case for the trial of Charles Taylor, the Liberian warlord?

Guissé: Of course there is concern, maybe less now. But at least the people who testified before the investigating judge told the truth.

PassBlue: Is there any protection for witnesses?

Guissé: No. When you talk about Charles Taylor, it was an international court, so it offered protection, and when it comes to witness protection, you can’t compare the two.

PassBlue: What will be the biggest challenges for you? What do you have to prove?

Guissé: Our vision in terms of representing the family is to be able to have the truth about what happened that day and what happened before and what happened after. After the assassination, Sankara was depicted as a bad guy who wanted to stage a countercoup [and allegedly assassinate Compaoré], and it is important for the family to have the truth — that was never the case; he knew that his life was threatened and he didn’t make any moves because he didn’t want to cause bloodshed. We don’t have to prove this, but we want to highlight that the way they have tried to depict Thomas Sankara wasn’t accurate. I think that people know that, but our goal will be to show in the courtroom through witnesses that the coup was well prepared and not something spontaneous from low-ranking officers.

PassBlue: Will you be able to cross-examine witnesses?

Guissé: In the criminal proceedings in Burkina, the president of the court can pose questions, the assessors can pose questions, and all the parties can question the witnesses. Witnesses are witnesses of the court, not of the prosecution and defense.

PassBlue: Do you foresee future challenges?

Guissé: The witnesses who are abroad will pose a challenge. The fact that some witnesses are old may make travel an issue. We also have the question of how videoconferencing in the court will be done, and it will be a challenge to hear all the witnesses we want to. We are waiting for the court to create a [schedule] for the witnesses. We are a team of [seven] lawyers, and we need to organize ourselves — it’s not like a criminal case that will go on for five days.

PassBlue: The two main suspects are former President Blaise Compaoré and his chief of security, Hyacinthe Kafando. Compaoré lives in Ivory Coast and Kafando is at large — how will this play out?

Guissé: It means that we won’t hear their side of the story — it’s a big loss for the process. But there was an arrest warrant during the investigation, and it’s not like they didn’t know what was happening. They didn’t want to come, but there is a special provision for judgement par defaut [judgment in abstentia].

PassBlue: Are you confident about the outcome?

Guissé: We never know. I’m a criminal lawyer and I’m never confident about anything. I hope we will be able to hear fully, for the first time in a courtroom, the testimony of very important witnesses and what happened the day before, the day of and the day after the assassinations of Sankara and his companions. It’s a very important part of the history of Burkina — it’s not every day that a head of state is killed — and I think it is very important for people to know what happened.

PassBlue: How important is this case for Africa at this moment?

Guissé: I am representing a family, so the main point is to help it find a little peace and have justice. Afterward, it is for the continent to be able to know what happened. The search for truth is something universal. In terms of impact, this is a philosophical question. What is the impact of justice rendered? What do people do afterward? We’ll see.

Due to an editing error, the headline and caption on the article were updated for accuracy.

Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist who reports throughout Africa and is now based in the Sahel region, reporting on the security and humanitarian crisis there. She holds an honor’s degree in political theory and a master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In February 2021, she won an award from the International Center for Journalists for her article on the first official death of a UN peacekeeper from Covid-19, published in PassBlue and The Daily Beast.

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