Political life has begun to return to normal in the Dutch-speaking Caribbean Community nation of Suriname, days after a court sentenced incumbent head of state Desi Bouterse to 20 years in prison for the December 1982 executions of 15 opponents of his then military government.
A panel of judges on Friday handed down the rather tough sentence on Bouterse, 74, while he was on a state visit to China, sparking widespread speculation in his governing National Democratic Party (NDP) that the timing of the sentences was primarily aimed at hurting his chances at a third five-year term in general elections scheduled for May 25 next year.
Bouterse returned to Suriname early Sunday morning to a tumultuous welcome from NDP supporters, declaring that come what may, “I will be on the list on candidates again” on May 25.
Media reporting of the judgement has already begun to fade away. Leaders of the plethora of political parties contesting next May’s elections have already begun to revert to traditional campaign themes, referring to the verdict en passe. They also sometimes call for his resignation.
This is even as the Bouterse legal and party hierarchical teams have begun preparing a court appeal in earnest. This move is designed to buy time for Bouterse, now a convicted felon, ensure he is the NDP’s candidate and to keep him out of jail — at least for the time being.
Some political leaders such as Marinus Bee van De of ABOP, a Maroon party with strong roots in the southeast near French Guiana and the interior, pour scorn on Bouterse and the NDP’s allegations that the verdict is designed to damage the president politically saying that the trial had been ongoing for more than a decade.
“Political parties do not sit in the courtroom. It is a trial against the citizen Bouterse. I do not know where the link with May 25. What exactly does Bouterse mean? Everyone falls under the law. The moment when a law has legal force counts for everyone,” he said.
Similar sentiments came from Chan Santokhi of the Hindustani VHP party and the National Party of Suriname (NPS).
“When the trial against Bouterse began, he was not a president. That proves that it was not a trial against the president and even less related to the election. So one should not say that. The lawsuit started in 2007 and the NDP did not enter the government until 2010, with Bouterse as president, a verdict of cases that took place in 1982. It was known for a long time that a ruling was imminent,” said Santokhi, a former justice minister and police chief.
NPS Leader Greg Russia notes that “the judiciary must be allowed to do its work. With us there is no indication whatsoever that the treatment and the resultant ruling would have anything to do with politics. We call every citizen to the laws respect the country,” the De Ware Tijd newspaper quoted him as saying.
The ruling has forced regional scholars to wade through archives as they try to determine whether Bouterse would become the first incumbent to be charged, convicted and sentenced to a jail term while serving as head of state and government.
His NDP is under severe pressure from several opposition political parties trying to deny the party from gaining a majority of 26 of the 51 seats it needs to form a government but party leaders say the sentence will only serve to energize the NDP’s multiracial base across the country.
In a detailed ruling that ate up almost all of last Friday, the judges said they were able to prove that Bouterse was the man who gave the orders and was not only the man in charge as military ruler of the country at the time, but shots were only fired when he was at or near the colonial era Dutch fort where the executions of the 15 were carried out, Investigators said they had found close to 100 bullet holes in the concrete of the fort, which is ironically, just steps away from the current cabinet and presidential office.
The 15 had included journalists, clergymen, labor leaders and ex soldiers-all accused to plotting a counter coup to reverse the February 1980 overthrow of the then elected government.
Bouterse is expected to face tense political pressure on Sunday when yet another Dec. 8 anniversary of the executions rolls round. Relatives, rights groups and others will likely as usual commemorate the date with candlelight vigils and other forms of observances and keep the issue in the face of the president and his powerful NDP outfit.