© Reuters. Former Suriname president Desi Bouterse speaks during a news conference after the Court Martial of Suriname confirmed a 20-year jail sentence for his involvement in the murder of 15 people while he ruled in 1982 during his military government, in Paramari
By Ank Kuipers
PARAMARIBO (Reuters) – A court in Suriname is set to announce a ruling on Wednesday in a final appeal by former President Desi Bouterse, who was convicted for his role in the December 1982 execution of 15 people in the former Dutch colony.
Bouterse, 78, who dominated Suriname’s politics for decades and left office in 2020, has denied the charges.
If the conviction is upheld, Bouterse, known by his nickname Bouta, faces 20 years in prison.
The court ruled in 2019 that Bouterse oversaw an operation in which soldiers abducted 16 leading government critics, including lawyers, journalists, union leaders, soldiers and university professors, from their homes.
Fifteen of them were murdered at a colonial fortress in capital Paramaribo, while one trade union leader survived and later gave testimony against Bouterse.
Bouterse has said the murdered men were connected to an invasion plot involving the Netherlands and the United States.
“This is the most important trial in Suriname’s history,” said lawyer Reed Brody, who is monitoring the case on behalf of non-governmental organization the International Commission of Jurists and called the nearly 20-year trial process “a legal and political soap opera.”
That a final verdict will be reached is “a tribute to the independence and the courage of Surinamese judges, to the tenacity of the families of the victims, who never gave up, and really to the resilience of rule of law,” he said.
Bouterse seized power in a 1980 coup against Suriname’s first prime minister, Henck Arron, just five years after the South American country’s independence from the Netherlands.
He led the country through the 1980s as head of a military government, then assumed office again in 2010, securing re-election five years later.
Observers have flagged potential for unrest in Suriname, which has a population of about 600,000, if the conviction is upheld, with the Dutch embassy warning that parts of Paramaribo may be inaccessible and that its citizens should avoid crowds.
The U.S. embassy has recommended people stay away from the downtown courthouse on Wednesday.
Bouterse told supporters at a rally on Saturday that the three judges should consider the potential consequences of their decision for the country, but also that unrest would not be beneficial.
“There is no point in letting things get out of hand here. We, none of us, none of us all benefit from that,” the ex-president told the rally.
Bouterse could ask current President Chan Santokhi for a pardon if the court rules against him. Defendants who immediately ask for pardons typically have their arrests paused for eight days.
Santokhi investigated the so-called “December murders” as a police commissioner and later, as justice minister, pushed for the case to move ahead.
Four other ex-military officers were tried alongside Bouterse and also appealed.
Bouterse was convicted in absentia of drug trafficking by a court in the Netherlands in 1999, though he has denied wrongdoing. His son has also been convicted on drug offenses and is serving a prison term in the U.S.