Surinamese president fights jail sentence

Bert Wilkinson | 12/5/2019, 1:22 p.m. | Updated on 12/5/2019, 1:22 p.m.

As was widely expected, a court in the Dutch-speaking Caribbean Community nation of Suriname has sentenced incumbent president and former army commander Dési Bouterse to 20 years in prison for his role in the execution of 15 political opponents back in Dec. 1982.

The weekend sentence came at the end of a lengthy trial process that lasted more than a decade and was handed down by the court while Bouterse was on an official state visit to China, fueling speculation among supporters of the governing National Democratic Party that its timing was designed to hurt his chances for a third term reelection in polls scheduled for May 25 next year.

Prosecutors and rights groups which had relentlessly pressured authorities to charge and convict Bouterse, 74, had alleged that Bouterse had given the orders to army officers and ranks to kill the 15 for conspiring with western nations to reverse a Feb. 1980 coup that Bouterse had led to topple the then elected government.

The 15 were killed at a colonial-era Dutch fort that is ironically steps away from Bouterse’s current presidential and cabinet office. He has persistently denied ordering the killings but has publicly taken collective responsibility for them as the man in charge of the country of about 500,000 at the time.

Bouterse’s NDP announced on Sunday that its top brass will be meeting with its attorneys and high officials this week to plot a way of stymieing the execution of the 20-year sentence in order to make him eligible to run for a third five year term. Several opposition parties have called on him to step down, while others have urged officials to ensure he begins his sentence. His legal team has already said it will appeal the verdict, while pointing out that appeals in that country normally take up to 10 years to be heard. If that is the case, Bouterse might well be retired or too old to spend any meaningful time in prison by then.

The ruling has pushed regional scholars to wade through archives as they try to determine whether Bouterse is the first incumbent to be charged, convicted and sentenced to a jail term while serving as head of state and government.

His NDP is under severe pressure from a number of opposition political parties trying to deny the party from gaining a majority of 26 of the 51 seats it needs to form a government but party leaders say the sentence will only serve to energize the NDP’s multiracial base across the country.

Bouterse returned to Suriname from China early Sunday, only to be met by thousands of eager supporters at the main airport. He appealed for calm while suggesting that the alleged plot to jail him and get him out of office could backfire.

“If you don’t pay attention, the whole thing will splash in their faces. You won’t win an election this way. The party will always win the battle. It cannot be otherwise.”

Irwin Kanhai, the president’s long time attorney said he was angry that a parliamentary amnesty protecting the president from a jail term was ignored by the court.

Meanwhile, several civilian former ministers and high officials who were among the 25 charged were freed while a number of ex-soldiers were convicted and will face sentences ranging from six to 20 years. There was no word on whether they will also appeal their sentences.

The country is in the throes of elections preparations. Like neighboring Guyana which has found humongous quantities of oil in wells mostly near the Surinamese border, the upcoming elections are seen as crucial to the future of the country as experts there believe that large quantities of offshore oil will also be found there.

The 15 executed had included four journalists, a number of clergymen, labor leaders and academics who were hauled from their homes and shot at the fort, plunging the country and Caribbean into a state of disbelief. Authorities in power back then had widely believed that they were part of a counter coup plot to topple the then military government and kill Bouterse and his associates.