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Former Surinamese president Dési Bouterse convicted of murder for the second time—but will he go to prison?

Memorial to the victims of the 1982 December murders, which took place at Fort Zeelandia in Paramaribo, Suriname, under the military regime of Desi Bouterse. Photo by Dan Sloan on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

In 2019, Dési Bouterse, the former president of Suriname, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after a military court found him guilty of the executions of 15 dissidents in 1982, a dark incident in the country's recent history that became known as the “December murders.” On August 31, despite an appeal by his legal team, the court re-sentenced Bouterse to the same fate for his involvement in the killings.

The 75-year-old Bouterse was not present in court for the verdict because of illness. So far, the judges have not ordered imprisonment, which suggests that Bouterse may not be detained.

If this does turn out to be the case, it will not sit well with many people in the small South American country and members of the diaspora, for whom—despite the recent furore over Surinamese author Astrid Roemer's description of Bouterse as “unforgettably brave”—view him as nothing more than a convicted murder.

Bouterse first rose to power in a 1980 coup d'etat that set the tone for an era of military rule during which he was accused of several human rights violations. On the heels of the 1980 coup came a series of killings that were confirmed by Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, including the December 7, 8 and 9 murders in 1982, in which 15 journalists, scientists and trade union leaders opposed to Bouterse's military regime were tortured and shot.

Despite being found guilty in 2019, Bouterse has consistently denied involvement, though he accepted collective responsibility as he was head of government at the time. Even in the face of a second conviction, however, he still can—and will—appeal. The basis of his defence is that the executions were part of his attempt to prevent an alleged invasion plot by their former colonisers The Netherlands, as well as the United States.

Much remains unknown about the period immediately following Suriname's independence from The Netherlands in 1975. The fact that documents containing state secrets regarding alleged Dutch ties to the Suriname coup will stay sealed in The Hague until 2060, makes it difficult to verify Bouterse's statements. Either way, the former president has been convicted once more. Even his claims of psychological stress, possible contraction of COVID-19, and other health issues did not sway the court's decision.

Lawyer Gerard Spong, who has been the legal face of the trials, predicted:

Het rechtsstatelijkse net sluit zich om Bouterse heen. Suriname is not niet klaar met hem.

The judicial system encloses Bouterse in its web. Suriname is not finished with him yet.

Still, among the Surinamese community, resentment of delayed justice has increased over the years. Via video conference, Global Voices interviewed Ramon F., a Surinamese father of three living in the Netherlands, who remembered what it was like living under Bouterse's rule:

I was a small boy when this happened and our family had just arrived in Paramaribo that school year. I remember the chaos at school. My older cousin came to get me and we ran straight home. Nobody had an explanation why our teachers disappeared and why we saw some of them taken away. I am still a young man, in my late 40s, and I don't think this should be forgotten. I will never forget the chaos on the streets and the fear. Our parents later said the cannon shots we had heard were to celebrate my sister's birthday.

In the meantime, a whole new generation of Surinamese has grown up—many of them abroad—with a far weaker connection to the December murders. Although some of their peers take the issue to the streets, most are more concerned with socio-economic problems. Others, like Dutch Literary Prize winner Astrid Roemer, openly support Bouterse for his decolonial stance.

Despite his controversial past, Bouterse became Suriname's democratically elected president after his National Democratic Party won the elections in 2010. It is a position he legitimately held until he lost the country's 2020 elections to current president Chan Santokhi.

Bouterse remains certain, however, that his “name shall be on the presidential election list again.” Suriname citizens, both at home and throughout the diaspora, may not be as convinced.

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