Is the Bouterse verdict a symbol of justice in Suriname's turbulent past?

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In Suriname, the tiny former colony of the Netherlands located along the northern coastline of South America, the recent conviction of Desi Bouterse — the controversial political figure, former military leader and president — has ignited a fiery debate.

Following the Surinamese Court of Justice's confirmation of the former president's conviction, which took place in Paramaribo on December 20, 2023, Bouterse, once a powerful figure, faces circumstances that challenge not just his own complicated legacy, but also the nation's collective history. As the three women judges underlined, however, “Murder is murder.”

It's a stark reminder of the December Murders, the 1982 executions of 15 dissidents that happened under Bouterse's military regime, and the turbulent years that shaped modern Suriname. The deep scars this fraught history has left can still be traced back among the population both in and outside of the country: if you are Surinamese, you are either for or against Bouterse.

For the latter, Bouterse's latest conviction brings a sense of delayed justice. In 2019, he was sentenced to a 20-year jail term for the murders, and on August 31, 2021, despite appeals, the court re-sentenced him to the same fate for his involvement in the killings.

This latest verdict, therefore, offers more than legal closure; it represents a meaningful victory over unchecked power and a crucial step towards national healing. As a family member of one of the victims described it, the feeling was “euphoric and simultaneously, a feeling of release of all this tension.”

In the Netherlands, members of the Surinamese diaspora also have strong feelings about the verdict. Ramon, a 41-year-old restaurant owner, told Global Voices he is relieved: “I grew up with my parents’ stressing about Bouterse and he was often a topic of discussion at the dinner table. One of my elders was hurt during this time, and it has left marks on our family, but also on Suriname as a nation. I grew up in the Netherlands, but I still felt the brunt of it all.”

Rosanna, a 53-year-old cultural transformation director, shares Ramon's relief: “I am glad Bouterse finally has been convicted. I also grew up with people who were directly affected by the murders. However, more importantly, I find this conviction a message to the youth. They need to know Suriname is a country of justice and that they can count on the system in the end.”

Nevertheless, 40-plus years of struggle have left many sceptical. Hawa, a housewife who is also in her fifties, says the court's decision has actually left her less optimistic about the eventual outcome: “He will appeal again like he always did,” she says. Even after explaining that no more appeals were possible according to the parameters of the judicial system, she remained resolute in her reluctance to believe: “Why is he then not in prison?”

It is a question which, at the moment, remains unanswered.

Meanwhile, Bouterse's supporters have been expressing different sentiments. They see the verdict as a political ploy, an orchestrated move to dethrone a leader who, in their eyes, championed the underprivileged and fought against colonial remnants. In fact, Bouterse's decolonial stance was something that was widely acknowledged by both his supporters and detractors.

Most recently, after the famous writer and 2021 Dutch Literary Prize winner Astrid Roemer controversially declared that Suriname “needed” Bouterse, whom she described as “unforgettably brave,” organisers cancelled her award ceremony.

Between the victims’ families and human rights supporters, and Bouterse's followers, emotions ranged from relief and justification to disappointment and distrust. It was a split representative of the deeper societal divides in Suriname and the ongoing challenge the country faces in coming to terms with its complex historical backdrop, strongly intertwined with the Dutch legacy in the region.

Suriname's colonial past under Dutch occupation and its post-independence interactions have left a complex history to navigate. The Netherlands’ response to the trial, its diplomatic relations with Suriname, and the interest of the Dutch-Surinamese community all point to the enduring influence of this historical connection.

This trial and its aftermath have become much bigger than Bouterse, encompassing as well Suriname's identity and the kind of future it wants to carve out for itself. The diverse and emotionally charged reactions, therefore, offer a glimpse into a nation struggling to come to terms with its history while striving to move forward.

Will the new Suriname be committed to democratic values? Will it uphold legal integrity? As the country navigates these turbulent waters, the world watches, with many hoping for a future where justice and reconciliation can coexist.

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