Suriname mass murder trial finally ending

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

Two weeks from now, former Surinamese President and ex-military strongman, Desi Bouterse would know whether a 20-year jail sentence for mass murders back in 1982 will stand as his appeal against the lengthy sentence nears its very end.

Unless his defense team could find good judicial reasons to delay the end of his appeal, the court is likely to reaffirm his late 2019 sentence for the December 1982 executions of 15 opponents of his then military government.

The military had back in February 1980 taken power from the then elected government but had been under severe opposition from locals and political groups and western nations which have never hidden their desire to reverse the coup.

At the most recent hearings in the past week, the panel of judges had set Jan. 31 as the final hearing day for Bouterse, 77, a two-time freely elected civilian president who lost the last general elections in mid 2020.

Bouterse and four other defendants, mostly former soldiers, are on trial for the December 1982 murders of 15 people, including four journalists, who were executed at a colonial era Dutch fort for allegedly collaborating with western nations to overturn a military coup that soldiers had staged in February 1980.

The panel held hearings in the past week and determined that the trial should conclude at the end of this month.

The defense had late last year pulled off what had appeared to be a brilliant legal ploy to either delay the hearings or to have them restart altogether when it had objected to the presence of one of the judges on the panel because he was related to one of the 15.

Colonel Dennis Kemperveen is the military representative on the panel, while the late Andre Kamperveen is a relative of his. The defense had filed strong objections to his presence of Dennis both because the two are relatives, and as well, because they had claimed that the colonel had shown specific interest in Andre Kamperveen during hearings, alleging bias.

But investigations eventually determined that the two are very distant cousins and that the colonel had asked questions of other defendants during hearings late last year and not specifically of Andre Kamperveen.

So the court dismissed the objections and cause for any form of delay, going ahead with hearings and determining that the decades old trial should finally conclude with the final hearings at month end.

Bouterse was in late 2019 sentenced to 20 years in prison for ordering the executions. He has persistently denied doing so accepting collective responsibility only because he was the de facto head of state at the time. Witnesses have, however, placed him at the fort during the time firing squads were killing the 15 that had also included clergymen, academics and labor leaders.

It is unclear if lead counsel Irvin Kanhai can pull any other legal trick or maneuver from his decades of experience and abilities as the country’s leading lawyer. If not, the court is likely to reaffirm the 20-year sentence on Desi Bouterse as the prosecution has said that its band of witnesses had remained firm in their evidence that Bouterse had not only ordered the killings but was also present during executions.

The killings had shocked Suriname’s Caribbean neighbors as it did for the then former Dutch colony, just seven years after becoming an independent nation. The military was adamant that the 15 were collaborating with the Dutch, the French via neighboring French Guiana and the US to reverse the coup.

“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,” Bouterse told the court. Initially, more than 20 defendants were not on trial. Some had been civilians who had served in the military administration up to the late 80s before the resumption of free elections. At least half a dozen have died, leaving the four and Bouterse to face trial. Bouterse is the leader of the National Democratic Party (NDP) that had served two five-year term and had also run the country in the late 90s for a single truncated term.