A former military strongman in Suriname was on Monday sentenced to 20 years in prison for his leading role in a late December 1982 mass murder of 15 government opponents but the judging panel appeared to move to deliberately ease political tensions in society by failing to order his arrest and detention until a formal appeal is filed as is widely expected.

Desi Bouterse, 75, who a year ago lost his bid for a third successive term as Suriname’s elected president, told the court he was sick and would not attend the hearing that had confirmed his role in the December 1982 mass murders of the 15. He and his military government, which two years earlier had kicked out the elected government in a military coup, had accused the 15 of plotting with The Netherlands to invade the country to overturn military rule. The group that had included four journalists, clergymen, academics and labor leaders were executed by firing squad at a Dutch colonial era fort, causing bedlam in society and the hemisphere. The bodies of some of the victims bore torture marks.

Court President Cynthia Valstein Montnor said the panel had concluded that there was a legal and evidential case for mass murders and sided with prosecutors who had demanded that the leader of the now opposition National Democratic Party (NDP) be sentenced to 20 years in prison.

But as was widely expected, the judges held their hands by not ordering police to arrest Bouterse and take him to jail until his appeal is heard, apparently well aware that it could have sparked some form of civil unrest.

Last week, authorities had ordered police and the military, for which Bouterse had served as a sergeant before staging the coup and as its head after, to be on national alert for any signs of trouble as the verdict was read. NDP leaders had also asked supporters to take a day of rest on Monday as they feared that the party could have been blamed for unrest staged by other groups. The hearing was brief. Irvin Kanhai, Bouterse’s longtime lawyer was also absent but has repeatedly said his side would appeal any conviction and sentence. The appeal must be lodged in 14 days.

The trial has been ongoing for about 20 years, while various groups of surviving relatives and friends have been keeping up the pressure on authorities to ensure that Bouterse and several of his ex-military and civilian accomplices were hauled before the court to answer. The ex-strongman has persistently said that he accepts full collective responsibility for the murders but was not guilty of ordering them individually as he was not around at the time.

Some of his own supporters say they now hope that Bouterse’s age and confirmed ill health would work in his favor, especially if the hearings are spread out over the next few years.

Hugo Essed, who represented surviving relatives, told reporters that “the handling of the case in opposition has now been closed. Nevertheless, the court martial has ruled that there is every reason to confirm the judgment in absentia, pronounced on November 29, 2019.”

Bouterse’s NDP party dropped 10 seats to 16 in general elections held last year and remains the largest of the opposition parties. The coalition administration of President Chan Santokhi has been under severe pressure in the past year as the currency has declined significantly, food and other prices have skyrocketed, and the International Monetary Fund is putting its usual fiscal and monetary squeeze on authorities to implement tough austerity measures to arrest the country’s economic decline. The NDP is banking on some form of rebirth from the economic and other troubles the administration is facing.