Former President of Suriname, Desi Bouterse.
Former President of Suriname, Desi Bouterse.
Associated Press / Edward Troon, file

In about a week’s time, embattled Surinamese President Desi Bouterse of Suriname will make his very first appearance before a court or war council which had last month ordered him jailed for 20 years for the 1982 mass executions of 15 government opponents.

The Jan. 22 hearing is designed to allow Bouterse, 74, to signal his plans to appeal the jail sentence for the killings in the height of military rule, following the February 1980 coup that had toppled the elected government of then Prime Minister Henck Arron.

Bouterse, trying to win a third consecutive five-year term in general elections on May 25, has never appeared before the panel of judges hearing the mass murder case for more than a decade, but now that he has been sentenced, he has wasted no time in moving to appear knowing full well that the sentence will be confirmed and imposed if he stays away again.

The sentence has come five months before the country votes for a new government. Bouterse’s National Democratic Party (NDP) has blamed the timing of his sentence on a panel of judges, who it says, is determined to damage and sabotage his chances for reelection. That’s the belief of the NDP.

So the party has called out thousands of its supporters to assemble outside the court to give support to the former army sergeant turned coup maker and military strongman, while he stands in the dock before the panel. The case against him and 24 other suspects, had been going on for more than a decade. Bouterse had only shown some contempt for the proceedings and had opted to stay away from sessions, being represented only by his legal team. Irwin Kanhai, his loyal, longtime attorney, is not that enthused that he plans to appear but will nevertheless turn up to represent him.

Now that the sentence has been handed down, Bouterse is compelled to attend court. Kanhai has given notice of appeal against the sentence. Critics say that this phase of the trial process will drag out for years and will allow Bouterse to buy time to stay out of prison and be legally eligible to run in the next or any general election in the near future.

As expected, opposition parties and leaders have roundly criticized the NDP for mobilizing its supporters to attend the court, saying it is a clear effort to intimidate the judges even though they have withstood the withering criticisms over the years and had proceeded with their work.

“We see this as outright intimidation of the judiciary,” said labor leader, Robby Berenstein. “We therefore strongly reject the NDP’s call for supporters to call on people who, on 22 January, to deal with Mr Bouterse’s opposition, who might once again endanger the rule of law. We see this as outright intimidation of the judiciary.” Officials say it is unclear whether police will grant permission for the assembly near the court.

The 15 were killed at a downtown colonial era Dutch fort that is ironically just next door to the cabinet and presidential office. Bullet holes in the walls are still visible today.

The group had included four journalists, academics, labor leaders and clergymen, all accused of cozying up with the west to overturn the 1980 coup that had included grievances such as soldiers demanding to be represented by a labor union. Bouterse has denied ever giving any order to execute the group but has admitted political responsibility as the then head of state and government.

His NDP is leading in the polls and could well win a third consecutive term. They are only seriously challenged by the Hindustani VHP party. Widespread speculation is that the two could come together after as VHP businessmen are feeling the squeeze of being out of office for such a protracted period and not in a position to benefit from state contracts and other forms of largesse.

All this is happening even as authorities earlier this month declared a massive oil and gas find offshore Suriname, just bordering the area with Guyana where American supermajor ExxonMobil and a consortium have found billions of barrels of oil in the past five years. Bouterse says Suriname will turn the corner economically in the short term.

“Cooperation is very important. It is time for all relevant experts to look together at how we will deal with these developments given by God.“