Mark Wilson #2

The writer is an international journalist based in Port of Spain

Ever sat down to do business with a convicted mass murderer, still on the loose? That’s likely to be the experience for Caricom heads of government for the next few years.

Last week Friday, a military court in Suriname sentenced the country’s president Desi Bouterse to 20 years in prison for the murder of 15 political opponents in December 1982.

Most Surinamese don’t expect Bouterse to serve a single day of his sentence. His vice president Ashwin Adhin says the appeal process could be dragged out for up to ten years.

But few dispute the fact of the murders. Journalists, businessmen, trade unionists and academics, the 15 victims were dragged from their beds at dead of night, and held in historic Fort Zeelandia in the heart of the capital, Paramaribo. They were questioned, tortured, and shot. This coming weekend marks the 37th anniversary of the killings.

Bouterse’s conviction does not dent his popularity. Just before two in the morning last Sunday, less than two days after the court verdict, a huge crowd of purple-clad party supporters gave him a hero’s welcome at Suriname’s Johan Adolf Pengel international airport.

He was arriving home from a state visit to China with the promise of US$300 million in assistance for airport improvements, solar power, 5G internet, roads, traditional medicine … and don’t forget the final add-on, a “safe city” number-plate and facial recognition surveillance system.

The president’s itinerary was carefully planned. He travelled on a special flight by a chartered Turkish aircraft, with a single refuelling stop in Kenya. That’s a long way off from the direct “great circle” route from Suriname to China, which would overfly Siberia and Greenland.

In 1999, he was sentenced by a court in the Netherlands for trafficking 474 kilos of cocaine. His conviction remains contested by his lawyers, but he has for the past 20 years organised his travel plans to avoid overseas arrest.

Now 74, Bouterse has shadowed his country’s politics since 1980, five years after independence from the Netherlands, when a “sergeants’ coup” by low-level military officers toppled the elected government.

Amidst fears of a counter-coup, he led a brutal war in the 1980s against rebel Maroon and Amerindian communities in the interior. Last Friday’s court sentence was handed down on the 33rd anniversary of the massacre of 39 civilians, mostly women and children, in the Maroon village of Moiwana.

In 2000, a newly elected government led by Bouterse’s political opponents initiated a magistrate’s inquiry into the 1982 murders, just ahead of the 18-year deadline set by Suriname’s statute of limitations. The bodies of the 15 victims were exhumed. Bouterse and 25 others were indicted in 2004 and sent for trial by a military tribunal. He accepted political responsibility for the murders in 2007, but continues to deny his guilt.

Bouterse is a great platform communicator, with a jokey straight-talking style, easily outshining his country’s lacklustre machine politicians. From 2010, he was back in power as democratically elected president, murder charges and cocaine conviction notwithstanding, and he was re-elected five years later. Hearings of the murder case proceeded at a snail’s pace, delayed in part by an amnesty law passed in 2012 and subsequent government attempts to halt proceedings.

It is now 37 years since the 1982 murders. For younger Surinamese, they are ancient history. For the relatives and associates of the victims, now middle-aged or elderly, the verdict brings some degree of closure. For Bouterse’s enthusiastic supporters, it makes little difference.

What comes next? Bouterse chose not to attend any court hearings. Tried in his absence, he has until 13 December to lodge an objection to the verdict. That would then be referred back to the court within two months, at which point he would have to attend court. To avoid this route, another way out could be a quick overseas trip to a safe destination, and a fast pardon from Ashwin Adhin or whoever is acting president in his absence. His supporters meanwhile claim that the whole court process was politically based.

Bouterse’s lawyers, naturally, have not yet disclosed their strategy. But the president has a mass meeting scheduled for tonight. Expect some fireworks.

For Suriname’s Caricom partners, dealing with a convicted criminal in the Suriname chair is nothing new. But there’s a difference between a conviction for drug trafficking, and a sentence for 15 brutal murders. There’s a difference also between a verdict from a court in the Netherlands, and one from his own country.

An election for Suriname’s National Assembly is due on May 25. The president says his name will be up there on his party’s list, in big bold letters. The new president will be chosen later, either by a two-thirds National Assembly majority, or by a simple majority in the United People’s Assembly, a specially convened meeting of national and local government representatives.

Now 74 and showing his age, Bouterse may decide to step aside this year for Adhin or another younger successor. But if he runs, he is more likely to serve a five-year third term as president than a 20-year sentence for murder.

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