Suriname President Desi Bouterse (270858)
Credit: Contributed

Dec. 8, 1982, revolutionary soldiers in Suriname rounded up 15 opponents of the then military government and executed them at a colonial era fort in the capital. Now, authorities in the Dutch-speaking Caribbean Community nation are bracing for the annual round of candle-light vigils and other commemorative activities as the trial of more than a dozen ex-soldiers implicated in the murders nears an end.

A local court hearing cases against 14 of the original 25 suspects is expected to soon name a date for sentencing, and the list of suspects includes none other than Desi Bouterse, the current Surinamese president, who was the Army commander and the sergeant who in 1980 had staged a coup to remove the elected government of Prime Minister Henck Arron.

Prosecutors have already recommended that Bouterse be sentenced to 20 years in prison, but he and those still on trial might not serve any time in prison because parliament passed a law back in 2012 granting amnesty to those involved in the executions on Dec. 8, 1982. The legality of the amnesty law is being disputed by judges.

Six of the defendants have died over the decades since Suriname shocked the world with both the February 1980 coup and the executions of journalists, clergymen, labor leaders and academics two years later.

Bouterse, 73, has denied ever ordering the killings of the 15 for allegedly conspiring with Western intelligence agencies to stage a countercoup, but he has accepted “political responsibility” for the murders, largely because he was the Army commander and the power behind the political throne in Suriname at the time.

In the past two weeks, the court has given notice that the proceedings are coming to an end and that written sentences for those still on trial will be handed down most likely in the new year. The killings have hung like a “political albatross” around the necks of Surinamese over the years, with suggestions from rights groups and surviving relatives that an end to the trial would provide the kind of closure they and society badly need.

As the judges prepare to bring the proceedings to a close, Bouterse and a few of the other defendants failed to appear late last month to give their closing arguments to the court. Bouterse opted instead to have his attorney, Irvin Kanhai, speak on his behalf. He has never appeared before the judicial tribunal. Asked if he would have at least made an appearance to add any points to that of his legal team, lead attorney Kanhai told the panel, “He is not going to appear.”

Several of those on trial with Bouterse had either transitioned from ex-soldiers or high-ranking civilians to cabinet ministers in the 1980s and 1990s. Some, such as former Army chief Arthy Gorre, have died, and the court has freed approximately half a dozen, indicating that evidence against them was not strong.

The military held on to power until the turn of the 1990s, when democracy was restored with fresh general elections. Bouterse’s current governing National Democratic Party came largely out of the military and is today the largest single political outfit in Suriname, with more than the required 26 of the 51 seats in parliament. The coup maker, who has today traded military fatigues for designer suits and civilian clothing, is now in his second five-year term in office and could win again in 2020 if all goes well and if his health holds up, officials say.