When hearings resumed in the 1982 mass murder case against former Surinamese military strongman and later ex-elected president, Desi Bouterse on Tuesday, Jan. 31 the state’s prosecution service not only asked the court to reaffirm a 2019, 20-year sentence but surprisingly demanded his arrest and imprisonment for the first time.
The demand by acting Attorney General, Carmen Rasam sent shockwaves through the courtroom as there are lingering fears in the Dutch-speaking CARICOM nation that civil unrest and even violence could break out if the charismatic leader of the main opposition National Democratic Party (NDP) is in fact actually hauled away in a prison van.
Bouterse and four other defendants, most of them former soldiers, are accused of executing 15 Surinamese citizens because they were allegedly plotting with western nations to reverse the bloody February 1980 coup that had toppled the then elected government. The soldiers had had a string of complaints against authorities including demands for a labor union among others.
During Tuesday’s sessions, the prosecution wasted little time in asking the panel of judges, including one representing the military, to confirm the 2019 jail sentence as there is overwhelming evidence that Bouterse, 77, was responsible for the executions of the 15, including four journalists, academics, clergymen and labor leaders.
Acting AG Rasam surprised many when the state made it clear that it believes that Bouterse should not be treated any differently from any murder accused so he should be imprisoned once the trial is concluded in the coming weeks.
Bouterse has persistently maintained his innocence, saying that he accepts collective responsibility as the then de facto head of state at the time but denies ever giving orders for firing squads to kill the 15 at a Dutch colonial era fort. Ironically, the fort is right next door to the presidential secretariat where Bouterse had led the country for two consecutive terms until losing the 2020 elections.
As for the four others facing trial with him from more than 20 initially charged, the state is also demanding 10 years sentences. Many of the others have died, while others mostly civilian government officials during the stormy 1980s, were freed by the courts in recent years.
One of the judges even said that “Bouterse had set himself up as God and decided about life and death.”
His defense team has consistently complained that important evidence that could prove his innocence was not heard in court and that some of the witnesses had lied for self protection. He has also told the court that there was never a plan to kill anyone but to get them out of the country and end their collaboration with western nations.
“My responsibility commanded me to have the people picked up and to defuse the case. I know it was never the intention to pick up people and kill them, “he had said at a previous hearing.
The NDP with 16 of the 51 seats in parliament will likely hold a public rally in the coming days even as there are real fears in the country that actual jail time for the former military strongman could trigger unrest.