Bouterse absent from second day of appeal hearing

Former President of Suriname, Desi Bouterse.
Former President of Suriname, Desi Bouterse.
Associated Press / Andres Leighton/File

Desi Bouterse, the main and highest profile accused in the December 1982 mass murders of 15 government opponents in Suriname, failed to show up on Wednesday for the second day of hearing of his 20-year jail sentence even as the appeals tribunal heard testimonies from at least four witnesses.

Bouterse and four other former soldiers who were associated with the bloody February 1980 military coup that had toppled the elected civilian government, are fighting to stay out of jail after a court had in late 2019 sentenced them to various times in prison for the murders committed 40 years ago. Bouterse got the harshest-20 years in jail.

Widely considered as his very last opportunity to remain a free man, Bouterse, 77 in October, sent in a medical certificate indicating illness for his absence while most of the other defendants appeared in court and called for witnesses.

Hugh Essed, the lawyer for surviving relatives, told Star News online publication that some of the defendants made major legal mistakes by calling witnesses, some of whom placed the defendants at the colonial era Dutch fort on the days of the executions where the 15 were executed by firing squad. The 15 had included four journalists, labor leaders, clergymen and academics, all accused of plotting with the west to reverse the coup. Bouterse has denied any direct involvement but has acknowledged collective responsibility as he was the military strongman at the time.

The tribunal that includes civilian judges and one from the military, is scheduled to sit again on October 24. The judges have indicated that they may want to interrogate some of the accused

Essed said that most of the witnesses brought nothing new to the body of evidence which had been gathered over 40 years. Some had in fact done great harm to the defendants on whose behalf they had appeared.

“Ex-military Iwan Dijksteel, summoned by suspect Stephan Dendoe, stated that Dendoe was present in the Fort so Mr. Dendoe just called a witness who testified against him. The last was Mohammed Said. He has indicated that he was in the fort all day on Dec. 8, that he did indeed hear shots at various times. Saw nothing. Not very believable, Essed said. “The testimonies are in favor of the public prosecution service and against the suspects. It was not necessary for me. Nothing new has been added. On the contrary, a witness statement has been made against Mr Dendoe. We will see that after the interrogation of the suspects.”

Nearly a dozen of the group of 24 ex-soldiers and civilians have been freed while several have died over the decades. The defendants have no other recourse to prevent jail sentences being enforced and this includes Bouterse, who had in later decades donned civilian suits, ran for president and won two consecutive five-year terms that ended in defeat two years ago.

Surviving family members say that only jail sentences will give them closure while some supporters of the group have argued that some form of truth commission will help ease the pain of the unprecedented mass murder saga in modern daySuriname.

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