CPJ condemns dropped charges in Zongo case

New York, July 20, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is outraged by the decision of a judge in Burkina Faso to drop charges against the only suspect in the 1998 murder of a journalist probing criminal allegations against the president’s family.

Prosecutors said yesterday an examining magistrate had granted their request to drop the case against a member of the presidential guard indicted in the killing of Norbert Zongo, editor of the weekly L’Indépendant in the capital Ouagadougou. They said examining magistrate Wenceslas Ilboudo had dismissed charges against Warrant Officer Marcel Kafando, a member of the Presidential Guard Regiment, for lack of evidence. An independent commission of inquiry concluded in May 1999 that Kafando was one of six “serious suspects” in the murder.

“It is alarming that despite an independent commission and eight years of investigation, the authorities have dropped the indictment,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “If the Zongo case is shelved, it will send a terrible signal of impunity to the killers of journalists, and Zongo’s murder will continue to cast a shadow over the country’s independent press.”

The bullet-ridden bodies of Zongo and three other men were found in Zongo’s burned-out vehicle on December 13, 1998, some 50 miles (80 kilometers) outside Ouagadougou. Before his death, Zongo was investigating allegations that François Compaoré, brother and special advisor to President Blaise Compaoré, took part in the January 1998 torture and killing of his driver, David Ouedraogo. The chauffeur was suspected of stealing 20 million CFA francs (then US$27,000) from Compaoré.

Kafando was charged with Zongo’s murder in 2001. However, prosecutors asked for the charge to be dropped after their main witness expressed doubts in May 2006 about his previous testimony, according to news reports.

Press freedom and human rights activists expressed outrage at the decision, while the lawyer for Zongo’s family, Benewendé Sankara, said he would appeal. Sankara told CPJ he thought the decision meant that “the judicial system is not independent in this country.”

“We are in shock, everyone is astonished and angry,” Liermé Somé, editor of L’Indépendant told CPJ. “For the last eight years, not a week has gone by without us writing about this case. It is absolutely vital that light be shed on it.”