Burkina Faso / Norbert Zongo Case : The African Court recognizes the responsibility of the State of Burkina Faso in the denial of justice for the victims

Press release
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FIDH and MBDHP welcome the decision of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights in the affair concerning the assassination of the Burkinabe journalist, Norbert Zongo, and of three of his companions. Almost 16 years after these acts, the Court recognises the role of Burkina Faso in denying justice for the beneficiaries of these four murdered men.

In its ruling of 8 March 2014, the African Court found that Burkina “failed to act with due diligence in seeking, trying and judging the assassins of Norbert Zongo and his companions” [and as a result violated] “the rights of the Applicants to be heard by competent national courts” [in violation of Articles 7 and 1 of the African Charter). Moreover, the Court decided that Burkina Faso had violated the right of the freedom of expression of journalists (in violation of Article 9 of the African Charter and of 66.2 of the Revised Treaty of the ECOWAS), insofar of its “failure … in the investigation and prosecution of the murderers of Norbert Zongo, caused fear and worry in media circles”. The Court, which has not yet ruled on the demands for reparation, has given 30 days for the two parties to submit their arguments on the issue.

The assassination of Norbert Zongo remains a dark point in our recent political history, and the State, for not having rapidly considered such a symbolic case, is responsible for the denial of justice suffered by victims’ families. The African Court has just reminded the authorities of this failure. This is a first victory for human rights defenders in Burkina, who have been demanding truth and justice for Norbert Zongo and his companions for the past 16 years. This is also a victory for regional justice in the fight against impunity," said Chrysogone Zougmoré, MBDHP President.

On 13 December 1998, Norbert Zongo, an investigative journalist and editor of the weekly news journal The Independent, his younger brother Ernest Zongo, and colleagues Abdoulaye Nikiema and Blaise Ilboudo, were found burned in a car that was taking them to southern Burkina Faso. Both families of the victims and the MBDHP tied these murders to the investigations led by Norbert Zongo on several political scandals, both economic and social, affecting Burkina Faso at the time, and for which he had complained of having received threats.

After dealing with the many flaws of the investigative procedure (the plaintiffs were only interviewed shortly before the seven-year investigations was to end, 5 of the 6 identified suspects were never prosecuted, the only one implicated was awarded an order of dismissal, after which the authorities failed to pursue other avenues) the victims’ families and the MBDHP decided to file a complaint with the African Court in December 2011. The Court based its findings on the deficiencies of the national procedures, and noted the absence of an effective remedy in the Burkinabe judiciary.

"The Judgment of the Court in the case of Norbert Zongo has a particular importance as it relates to the question of the effectiveness of national justice and the freedom of expression of journalists, two issues that go beyond the borders of Burkina," said Sheila Muwanga Nabachwa, FIDH Vice President and focal point for the East African region of the Coalition for the African Court. "This decision clearly emphasises the primary responsibility of States to ensure access to justice and to protect fundamental freedoms", she added.

For Mabassa Fall, FIDH Representative to the African Union, "this ruling proves once again that the African Court is an essential means of redress for victims of human rights violations that would not get justice before their national courts. Additionally, it shows that NGOs and individuals have a definite role to play in increasing the effectiveness of the regional judicial system."

At the hearings before the African Court, Burkinabe authorities indicated the limitation period for the Zongo Affair by national courts is 31 August 2016. As such, FIDH and MBDHP call once again on Burkina Faso to take all necessary measures to shed light on the circumstances surrounding these killings, establish the identity of those responsible, and bring the perpetrators to justice.

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights
Created in 1998 to ensure the protection of human rights on the African continent, the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights has jurisdiction over all cases and all disputes concerning the interpretation and application of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights and any other relevant human rights instrument ratified by the States concerned. In operation since 2006, its decisions are binding. To date, twenty seven (27) States have ratified the Protocol to the African Charter establishing the African Court, but only seven countries, including Burkina Faso, have made a special declaration under Article 34.6 of the Protocol which allows individuals and NGOs to appeal directly to the Court. The effectiveness of the Court is thus frequently called into question by the very low number of States allowing citizens to directly appeal to it.

For more information on the case Beneficiaries of the late Norbert Zongo, Abdoulaye Nikiema Ablasse, Ernest Zongo, and Blaise Ilboudo and the Burkinabe Movement for Human and Peoples’ Rights. v . Burkina Faso, please refer to the African Court, MBDHP and FIDH webpages.

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