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Suriname’s mass murder trial inching to a close

Bert Wilkinson | 12/7/2017, 3:28 p.m.

Friday, Dec. 8, will mark the 35th anniversary of the killing of 15 of Suriname’s most prominent citizens for allegedly opposing military rule, two years after it had toppled the then-elected government because authorities resisted efforts by soldiers to form a labor union.

Survivors of the mass murders, opposition politicians and civil society will organize candlelight vigils and other activities to mark one of the darkest periods in modern Surinamese history, but even as they do they can take some hope that a court is now preparing to hand down sentences on approximately 20 suspects for the 1982 murders.

The 15 victims were rounded up from their homes by heavily armed soldiers, taken to a fort just next door to today’s presidential complex and parliament and shot for allegedly hatching plans to topple the military regime. The military has never furnished any convincing proof of this charge.

At the time, Dési Bouterse, now the civilian president serving a second five-year term, was the military strongman in the Dutch-speaking Caribbean trade bloc nation of approximately 500,000 people. He was the leader of soldiers who decided that they’d had enough of the relatively weak and indecisive administration of Prime Minister Henck Arron. So they stormed various government buildings and took control of the levers of state. Democratic elections were not held again until 1987.

As locals prepare to observe the 35th anniversary of the mass murders, they will be doing so amid a backdrop of the death of suspect and former coup maker Ruben Rozendaal. Rozendaal, 61, slit his own left wrist last week after a military-civilian court that had been conducting hearings into the killings had sentenced him to 10 years in prison for his role in the executions.

Rozendaal had warned the country that he might have to sacrifice himself if he were sent to jail because all he had done, on orders as a junior officer, was to round up two of the executed, including former Sports Minister André Kamperveen, and take them to the fort for execution. Specifically, he argued that he had never pulled the trigger on anyone. The judges never bought his story.

“If I didn’t obey maybe I would have been the 16th person who would have been killed,” he told the court.

In all, 25 men, including sitting President Bouterse, 72, went before the courts. The state wants to jail Bouterse and five others for 20 years and set free approximately 10 others. Rozendaal had strongly believed that he would have been a free man. The murdered 15 included journalists, academics, clergymen and labor leaders, all prominent citizens at the time.

As the years go by and as the court slowly gets to each individual defendant, Surinamese are beginning to sense that the end is near and that some form of closure is forthcoming, because every single effort by the state to stop the hearings has failed over the years.

Bouterse had back in 2012 invoked an amnesty law through parliament. That attempt failed. Last year, the state also had invoked article 148 of the Constitution that gives authorities the power to mandate the prosecutor general to stop criminal trials. That failed, too, because courts had overruled the attempt.

Bouterse has persistently denied killing anyone or even being present at the fort when the 15 were lined up against walls and shot, but he has taken collective responsibility as the leader at the time. It is unclear what other options Bouterse and the remaining defendants have to avoid jail sentences. A few have died.