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BURKINA FASO: Justice Campaigners Welcome Police Convictions for Fatal Beating

OUAGADOUGOU, Aug 29 2011 (IPS) - The conviction of three policemen for the February death of high school student Justin Zongo should be another building block in the struggle against impunity in Burkina Faso, say student leaders and human rights defenders.

At the conclusion of a two-day trial on Aug. 23, in Ouagadougou, the capital of this West African country, police constables Belibi Nébié and Béma Fayama were each sentenced to ten years in prison. They were found guilty of intentionally beating and injuring Zongo in February: the injuries led to his death soon afterwards. An officer, Narcisse Roger Kaboré, was sentenced to eight years for his involvement in the incident.

Lawyers for the three convicted men, who say the punishment is excessive, have announced they will appeal the judgement, but Ambroise Farama, lawyer for Zongo’s family, is satisfied.

“Justice has been served, because those responsible (for his death) have been named,” said Farama. “The aim of a lawsuit like this is to remind the forces of law and order that they cannot simply stop someone and torture him.”

The family had demanded only the symbolic amount of one franc as compensation.

Pushing back impunity

The death of Justin Zongo, on Feb. 20 in the southwestern town of Koudougou provoked violent demonstrations throughout the country, including the torching of public buildings, extensive destruction of private property, and six deaths, among them a police officer in the centre-west region.

The authorities, who initially attributed Zongo’s death to meningitis, retracted this claim following the riots as well as pressure from human rights organisations. A full inquiry into the death was ordered, leading to charges being laid against the police for the teenager’s death.

“The key point is that they have recognised that Justin did not simply die of meningitis. One must realise that his meningitis was provoked by his injuries,” said Kisito Dakuyo, the head of the Burkina Faso Movement for Human and People’s Rights (MBDHP) in the central Boulkiemdé province.

“We are interested in an educational significance that goes well beyond this verdict, and which challenges all those who harbour the idea of carrying out such acts,” said MBDHP’s national president, Chryzogome Zougmonré.

Zougmonré, who last year launched a campaign against all forms of torture under the theme “torture is an illegal, barbaric and cowardly act”, draws a parallel between the Justin Zongo affair and that of Arnaud Somé, 23, who died in suspicious circumstances in July 2010, also provoking riots in the southwest of the country.

Somé died after he was detained by police for possession of cannabis. The police were accused of torturing him and people took to the streets in several days of violent protest, setting fire to the regional police headquarters in Gaoua. The intervention of the army and the gendarmerie – armed elite police with responsibility for public order – was needed to restore order in the city.

In June, two members of the police force were found guilty of Somé’s fatal beating and sentenced to five years in prison.

Following the verdict, Dakuyo has renewed hope for justice in other cases, such as the unsolved assassination of Norbert Zongo, a journalist who was killed in December 1998.

“We believe that this is the beginning of justice for all the other dossiers which are pending, because our people have a thirst for justice, and this verdict gives hope for all outstanding cases,” said Dakuyo.

“There is positive momentum,” agreed Zougmonré. “We have noted that for too long, some police have been committing acts like these (beatings), particularly at certain sites of preventive detention (commissariats and guard posts). This must stop, because in a state ruled by law, one cannot tolerate the daily abuse of Burkinabè citizens.”

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