Bouterse on course to jailhouse

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

A former Surinamese military strongman turned elected president has been summoned to appear in court on Dec. 20 for the final session of his mass murder trial and a guilty verdict could see him being immediately arrested and sent off to jail, attorneys connected to the case said this week.

Desi Bouterse, 78, is appealing a 2019, 20-year conviction and sentence for the December 1982 mass murders of 15 prominent Surinamese, who the government back then, had been accused of plotting with western nations including France and The Netherlands to reverse the February 1980 military coup that Bouterse and 14 other non-commissioned officers had themselves staged against the then elected government.

A military-civilian court has already found him guilty of the crime and has already indicated that it feels that no new evidence was presented in the current appeal than was offered to the court back in 2019. A reaffirmation of the sentence and immediate arrest are widely expected but lead Attorney Irwin Kanhai has said that the defense team still has a major stroke to play to keep the CARICOM nation’s main opposition leader from the jailhouse.

The plan to save the two-term elected president who lost general elections in mid-2020 to an opposition coalition, is to approach the Inter American Court of Human Rights to argue that the 15 were picked up by soldiers, taken to a downtown colonial era Dutch fort and executed. Kanhai said his client, Bouterse, never gave any order to execute the four journalists, clergymen, academics and labor leaders and no witness had properly placed Bouterse at the fort during the executions. Preparations for taking the case international are well underway.

“That chance is real, depending on what will happen on Dec. 20. So, it is not the end yet,” Kanhai said on local television at the weekend. It is a fact that the people were picked up , because there was hard information that there would be an invasion later that year. But almost no one knows what happened in the Fort. If you have to kill 15 people because you picked them up, those soldiers wouldn’t be shooting bullet holes in the walls. Something psychological happened to those soldiers there. What happened should have been investigated by psychologists. And that did not happen,” said the attorney.

There has been talk of mass unrest if the leader of the National Democratic Party (NDP) is placed in handcuffs and carted off to jail but Bouterse has said he will bow to the orders of the court and has been discouraging any irresponsible reactions by loyal supporters. “I don’t believe my client has those kinds of intentions. He doesn’t want unrest in the country. He also has a lot of influence on his supporters and I think that he will therefore inform his supporters before December 20 that whatever happens, we will adhere to the law and justice. He is going to submit to law and justice. So, he is not concerned,” said Kanhai told reporters.

Four other ex soldiers have also been tried with Bouterse and will also know their fate on Dec. 20. Originally, 25 defendants including civilians who were associated with the military government of the 80s, were on trial. Some have died while others have been acquitted.

General elections are due in May of 2025 and already political parties are lining up candidates and raising funds for campaigns. Some critics feel that the governing coalition is quietly hoping that Bouterse is taken out of the political picture as this could lead to a weakening of his NDP as it is widely expected to do well in 2025 given the economic chaos of the past three years by the incumbent.