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

Former Surinamese military strongman, Desi Bouterse knows that his current appeal against a 20-year mass murder sentence is his last opportunity to remain a free man as a civilian-military tribunal is getting ready to hear his final arguments as to why he should not be sent to jail.

At its initial appeals hearing last week, the court set Aug. 17 to hear his appeal and it has also agreed to allow Bouterse, 77 in October, to call seven new witnesses whom he alleges were prevented from presenting vital evidence at lower court trials. Evidence from these new witnesses, he says, would prove he did not order the December 1982 executions of 15 government opponents.

Court officials say they are going out of their way to accommodate the former two-time elected president as once the hearings end, there are no more legal recourses for Bouterse. He could be led away in handcuffs.

The former army sergeant who had led a bloody 1980 coup against the then elected government, is accused of ordering the Dec. 8, 1982 executions of 15 opponents of his then military government. The group that had included four journalists, clergymen, labor leaders and academics, were rounded up and shot at a colonial Dutch era fort for allegedly plotting with the west to reverse the 1980 coup. He has persistently denied giving the go ahead but has accepted collective responsibility, being the head of the military-controlled government back then.

The state prosecutor’s team says it will not call any witnesses of its own as it doubts any new evidence will emerge during the hearings. Bouterse’s appeal is also being heard simultaneously with five other defendants. Their trials had commenced back in 2007 and have dragged on until now. Twelve of the original group have been acquitted — most of them civilians who were associated with the government — seven were convicted and six have died during the years.

It is unclear if Bouterse, leader of the main opposition National Democratic Party (NDP), will be actually sent to jail if he loses his appeal but authorities have already blamed him and his party for announcing recent support for civilian street protests linked to cost of living increases, widespread corruption and nepotism among other societal ills. Authorities say that the support for the protests is timed to coincide with the hearings to put pressure on authorities not to enforce the jail sentence if he loses.

Asked by judges why he is appealing after such a large volume of evidence has been tendered over the decades, Bouterse said, “I absolutely do not agree with the verdict.” His attorneys say lower courts had deliberately prevented exculpatory evidence that would have led to a not guilty verdict.

But as the country monitors events on the final stretch of a horrific chapter in Surinamese history, Hugo Essed, the attorney for relatives of the executed, says he expects the courts will order jail time as it has no other choice.

“There are no other legal remedies open to Bouterse. Appeal is the last station and when the court makes a decision and people are convicted, the suspects will have to be put behind bars,” he told the Herald Newspaper.

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