Suriname President Desi Bouterse (270858)
Credit: Contributed

The 20-plus years of the mass murder trial of former Surinamese military strongman and two-time elected president Desi Bouterse is coming to an end, but sensing that the court could rule against his client, the lead defense attorney has asked the court to patriotically not send him to prison.

The former soldier, who led a 1980 military coup against the then-elected government, had appealed against a 20-year sentence in 2019 for the 1982 executions of 15 government opponents. The Bouterse-led military government had accused the group of 15, including four journalists, labor leaders, and academics, of plotting with western nations to reverse the coup when they were executed by firing squad at a Dutch colonial-era fort in Paramaribo, the capital.

The appeal hearing is now headed to the stage where defense and state attorneys will soon present closing remarks. Once formalities come to an end, it will be up to the Caricom country’s final court to render a verdict. At every other stage of the trial, the court has held that Bouterse and four other ex-soldiers were responsible for the murders, but the former president has said he only accepts collective responsibility because he was the de facto head of state at the time. He had persistently denied ever personally giving orders to soldiers to execute anyone.

Lead attorney Irvin Kanhai told the panel of judges in his appeal on Bouterse’s behalf at the latest round of hearings in the past week that sparing Bouterse jail time would be an act of “patriotic love” as he pleaded with the court to avoid imposing a prison sentence.

The former president was in court when Kanhai made the plea. The next hearing is scheduled for the end of next month.

Many in the former Dutch colony of about 600,000 fear riots and other forms of unrest if the courts enforce the jail sentence against the popular opposition leader. Kanhai appears to be urging the court to spare him actual jail time because of his decades of service to the nation.

Patriotic love apart, the lawyer is also laying much of the blame for the executions and for the mayhem in 1982 at the feet of the Netherlands, saying the Dutch were unhappy about a loss of influence at the hands of the military-led government back then and desperate to recolonize Suriname after it had gained independence in 1975.

“The Netherlands is fully responsible for the events of the second week of December 1982,” Kanhai said. “As head of government and army commander, Bouterse was primarily responsible for national security and he acted correctly at the time by arresting persons suspected of posing a threat to national security.” 

Bouterse is leader of the main opposition National Democratic Party (NDP). The attorney also plans to submit that a case has not been made out against his client because no one has testified to him directly ordering the executions.

Meanwhile, Hugo Essed, the attorney for the victims, wants the trial to end soon because it is a main source of simmering political and other forms of division in the country.

 “The dividing line of that division runs over Mr. Bouterse’s head.” Essed said. “There is an antagonism. That is a contradiction that cannot be resolved, other than by the disappearance of one of the opposite poles. There is an insoluble contradiction between two parts of society, the dividing line of which runs over Bouterse’s head; a dividing line that stands in the way of brotherhood and cooperation.”

He said this division will come to an end if Bouterse and the others involved are sentenced and jailed in the coming weeks.

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