Suriname’s ex-dictator faces final verdict in 1982 killings of political opponents. Some fear unrest


PARAMARIBO, Suriname — Suriname’s former dictator will face a final verdict this month in the years-long judicial process over the 1982 killings of 15 political opponents that deeply scarred the South American country.

Desi Bouterse and two dozen others were accused of rounding up well-known people including lawyers, journalists and a university professor and executing them in a colonial fortress in the capital, Paramaribo.

Bouterse, who remains chair of the National Democratic Party, is scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 20 along with four other suspects. The 78-year-old former leader is the main suspect, having been convicted twice in the killings. He has accepted “political responsibility” for them but insists he was not present for them.

The relatives of those killed and Surinamese who remember what are known as the “December murders” say they want those responsible to be held accountable.

“It is a wound in the community. You can’t get away from it,” said Sanjai Debipersad, a 54-year-old consultant. “I want truth and justice.”

But some fear a final conviction of Bouterse in the long and involved case could lead to unrest. And some too young to remember the killings say the country should just move on instead.

The criminal trial began in 2007, a quarter-century after the events it relates to.

“It has been dragging on for 41 years now,” said Betty Goede, chairperson of the Organization for Justice and Peace, which represents relatives.

Bouterse led a bloodless coup to become dictator from 1980 to 1987 and was democratically elected president from 2010 to 2020.

He unsuccessfully tried to push through an amnesty law after being elected in 2010. Then in 2016, he ordered Suriname’s attorney general to halt legal proceedings for alleged national security reasons. A court rejected that.

In November 2019, Bouterse was sentenced in absentia to 20 years but appealed, arguing that he had not attended any court hearings. He lost and was convicted again in August 2021. He used his final appeal to fight that verdict, and a court will rule on Dec. 20.

At a hearing in July, Bouterse said that whatever verdict is issued, “I’m ready for it.”

But when he spoke to journalists afterward, he joked that he could still ask the “king” for a pardon if convicted, referring to Surinamese Vice President Ronnie Brunswijk, who recently received a symbolic award as monarch of the African diaspora by a council of African cultural leaders.

Brunswijk once served as Bouterse’s bodyguard until he turned against him and led a violent, six-year armed uprising that was ultimately unsuccessful.

If Bouterse is convicted, some fear riots in parts of Suriname. Die-hard supporters call him “boss” and maintain they will not accept a conviction. Bouterse has urged calm several times.

The Bouterse family has caused discomfort among some in Suriname. In an unrelated case, Bouterse was convicted in absentia of drug trafficking by a court in the Netherlands in 1999. His son, Dino Bouterse, was sentenced to more than 16 years in prison in the U.S. after admitting he offered a home base in Suriname to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Rani Sohansingh, whose brother Robby Sohansingh was among those killed in 1982, said Bouterse and other suspects should not receive any pardons or reduced sentences.

“Otherwise, Suriname would make an immortal fool of itself, both nationally and internationally, by treating the perpetrators differently than another criminal convicted of murder, after a criminal trial lasting more than 16 years,” she said.

On Dec. 8, she and others whose relatives were killed attended an annual ceremony to honor them, lighting candles and saying prayers.

But those asking for justice are largely middle-aged and elderly Surinamese who remember the killings. Some in the younger generation say Suriname should just move on.

“The country is in bad shape, and we better focus our attention there. This is of no use to us,” said 17-year-old Librado Abati. “I hope there won’t be any unrest.”

Joel Akaamba, 29, said his parents told him about the killings, but he believes Bouterse should not face legal proceedings.

“It is also not good for the country. We are already in a crisis, and unrest is only going to make it worse,” Akaamba said. “Let them leave him alone until he has to face God.”

A total of 25 suspects were initially accused in the killings. A dozen have been acquitted, six have died and five have been sentenced. Two have been convicted but are believed to have fled Suriname.

Sunil Oemrawsingh, whose brother Sugrim was among the victims, said he will follow the legal proceedings to the end.

“May this moment of judgment mark not only the end of a legal process, but also the beginning of a new phase in our history,” he said.

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