Desi Bouterse's post-conviction disappearance leaves Suriname in turmoil

Feature image, ‘Bouta Niet Iedereen Ziet Hem Hetzelfde,’ by Tjebbe van Tijen via Wikimedia Commons, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

In a dramatic turn of events, Desi Bouterse, the 78-year-old former Surinamese leader convicted in a 16-year-long landmark case concerning the 1982 killings of 15 political opponents, has disappeared. Following the December 20, 2023 ruling — which marked the end of his legal team's ability to appeal — Bouterse failed to surrender to begin his prison sentence. Authorities are now investigating his whereabouts.

Meanwhile, Bouterse's three fellow convicts have reported to their assigned prisons as instructed, so the former president's decision to abscond has sent shockwaves throughout the population, both within Suriname and across the diaspora, especially in the Netherlands, where many people of Surinamese background reside. Thus far, the public reaction has been a mix of disbelief, anger and concern.

Danesh, a 28-year-old Surinamese social worker who is currently on a professional exchange in the Netherlands, was visibly distraught when he heard the news: “Who voluntarily reports to a prison to serve a 20-year sentence? Not a man who has appealed and appealed. They should have just busted him and made sure he could not escape.”

Indeed, many are wondering why better security measures were not put in place for someone who was a flight risk. Johan, a 63-year-old former radio presenter on a Caribbean channel, agreed that this latest development “was to be expected,” but says he still believes that justice will triumph in the end: “Suriname showed they will not stand down against killers, even if it has to take 16 years.”

Fifty-one-year-old Sheila, however, who is employed as an administrative worker, holds a different view: “I think they hoped he would escape. Suriname has long been divided because of Bouterse and the murders. There was justice in the end for the people we lost and at the same time, no new blood will be shed by the people who want to keep him out of jail. Is enough not enough?”

Her perspective might help explain the reason behind the “easy” disappearance of a man who has been trying to escape justice for nearly two decades.

When the news broke that Bouterse had disappeared, a group of students in the streets of The Hague — the city with the largest Surinamese diaspora in the Netherlands — were heard mockingly quoting his wife, Ingrid Bouterse-Waldring, who firmly stated that she had no idea of his whereabouts, declaring, “He is not going to jail!”

Bouterse had previously been sentenced for the December Murders in 2019 and again in 2021, but appealed both rulings, saying in March 2007 that while he may have held some political responsibility, he was not present at the time of the murders.

While some view Bouterse's disappearance as an evasion of justice, others — especially those who saw him as a leader who brought a divided country together — see it as a symbol of defiance against a politicised judicial system. His lawyers have once more tried to appeal for amnesty, but they were quickly stopped by the Surinamese court.

In protest over the sentencing, the National Democratic Party has stated it will not forfeit Bouterse's seat at the table, keeping him on as party chair.

The government's scrambling to locate Bouterse not only complicates the path to reconciliation and healing, but also highlights the fragile nature of Suriname's democracy and the challenges it faces in upholding the rule of law.

Internationally, the incident has raised questions about Suriname's commitment to accountability and transparency. To put things in perspective, however, The Guardian went on to compare the Bouterse debacle with Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and Donald Trump, not to mention the ongoing wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.

As the nation awaits more information, the uncertainty of what happens next is turning out to be just as upsetting as the 16-year-long quest for justice.

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