On Friday, Dec, 8, opposition politicians, surviving relatives, grieving friends and even some officials in government will hold the usual candlelight and other types of vigils in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, to mark the 35th anniversary of the execution of 15 of that country’s most well-known citizens. The 15 were rounded up at night by soldiers, 22 months after the same group had staged a coup against the then elected government in a bitter row over demands, mostly by junior soldiers, to be represented by a labor union, a development that is unheard of and is highly unusual among its Caribbean neighbors.
The group was taken to a colonial era Dutch fort, interrogated and shot in cold blood, some standing against brick walls. As the city prepares to mark one of the bloodiest events in modern Surinamese history, a military / civilian court which has been conducting criminal trials into the mass murders of 1982, is stepping up its sentencing of the 25 criminal suspects who were charged with the murders. Back then and still up to today, the military has not been able to furnish any convincing proof that the group was planning a counter coup and plotting with western nations to dispose of military rule. The fort is located right next door to the presidential complex, the official residence of the head of state and a stone’s throw from parliament.
At the time, Desi Bouterse, 72, now civilian president serving a second five-year term, was the military strongman in the Dutch-speaking Caribbean trade bloc nation of about 500,000 people. He was the leader of soldiers who decided that they had had enough of the relatively weak and indecisive administration of President Henck Arron so they stormed various government buildings and took control of the levers of state. Democratic elections were not held again until 1987. A political party backed mostly by soldiers and civilian counterparts won several seats in that election.
But the days leading up to Friday’s observances were marred by the suicide of Ruben Rozendaal. Ruben, 61, slit his own left wrist last week after the court, which had been conducting hearings into the killings had sentenced him to 10 years in prison for his role in the executions.
Rozendaal had warned the country that he might have sacrificed himself if he was sent to jail as all he had done, on orders as a junior rank, was to round up two of the executed, including former sports Minister Andre Kamperveen and take them to the fort for death. Specifically, he argued, that he had never pulled the trigger on any one. The judges never bought his story.
“If I didn’t obey maybe I would have been the 16th person who would have been killed,” he told the court. It did not buy his story. In all about 20 of the still living group of 25 including Bouterse are before the courts. Some have already been sentenced. Prosecutors say they want to jail Bouterse and five others for 20 years each and set free another 10. Rozendaal had strongly believed that he would have been a free man. The 15 who were executed included four journalists, academics, clergymen and labor leaders, all prominent citizens at the time.
As the years go by and as the court slowly gets to each individual defendant, Surinamese are beginning to sense that the end is near and that some form of closure is forthcoming as every single effort by the state to stop the hearings have failed over the years.
Bouterse had back in 2012 invoked an amnesty law to permanently close the case through parliament. That attempt failed. Last year, the state also had invoked article 148 of the constitution that gives authorities the power to mandate the prosecutor general to stop criminal trials. That failed too as courts had overruled the attempt.
Bouterse has persistently denied killing anyone or even being present at the fort when the 15 were lined up against walls and shot but has taken collective responsibility as the de facto leader at the time. It is unclear what other options Bouterse and the remaining defendants have to avoid jail sentences.
Meanwhile, the Committee of Victims and Relatives of Political Violence is arguing that Rozendaal’s death is proof positive that criminal prosecutions will not solve problems relating to Dec. 8. It wants healing rather than the pain of trials.
“It was shocking, even for us, even though he had announced it when he heard the sentence,” committee spokesman Sandew Hira told Star News. “Frankly, I did not take him seriously. So when it happened, it was just a big shock. It makes you think. We can only speculate why he has done so. But in the bigger picture the question remains whether the lawsuit solves the problem, what kind of function does the court case have? It does make you think. Because if this is the effect, which effects can you expect even more if the sentences are actually converted into judgments?”
“As a principle, we have formulated that lawsuits, not just these, are not instruments of dialogue and reconciliation. It is an instrument of further conflict sharpening,” he said, appealing for a different way to heal the country.