President Bouterse must step downBy Stabroek News On In Editorial |
Almost 37 years after the brutal killings of 15 persons in Suriname and innumerable attempts to delay and thwart legal proceedings, President Desi Bouterse has been brought to justice over his role in this most heinous event.
A military court in Suriname on Friday convicted the President of murder for the execution of the 15 persons in 1982 and sentenced him to 20 years in jail.
President Bouterse, who was on a visit to China at the time that the ruling was handed down but has since returned to Suriname, must now step down from office. He is entitled to appeal the decision if he so wishes must not do so from the seat of the Presidency.
Friday’s decision in Paramaribo was a triumph of the rule of law even if the decision was not handed down by a civilian court as should have been the case. The conviction of a sitting Head of Government by a domestic court in a case of this magnitude and gravity must be recognised as requiring fortitude and courage. Tragically the families of the 15 victims have had to wait for nearly 37 years to gain a sense of justice.
Particularly since Suriname is a member of CARICOM it is important that the gruesome events of December 8, 1982, as was the case of those in Grenada in 1983, be well recalled within the region and among its people.
The court ruled on Friday that Mr Bouterse had overseen an operation in which soldiers under his command abducted 16 leading government critics – including lawyers, journalists and university teachers – from their homes and killed 15 of them at a colonial fortress in Paramaribo known as Fort Zeelandia. One trade union leader, Fred Derby survived and later courageously gave testimony against Mr Bouterse. Mr Derby passed away in May 2001.
According to an Amnesty International account, during the arrests, violence was used in some cases and the homes of some of the detainees were vandalized. According to eye-witnesses, the men were barely given the opportunity to put clothes on, and their families had to stay inside their homes for several hours, guarded by one or several soldiers. On the morning of the 9th December 1982, bodies were delivered at the mortuary of the local hospital. As soon as this became publicly known, hundreds of people gathered there, creating a tense atmosphere.
On 14 December 1982, then Lieutenant Colonel Bouterse appeared on Suriname television to report that 15 people, detained on suspicion of plotting a coup, had been shot while trying to flee from custody. However, reports received by Amnesty International at the time indicated that the victims had been shot through the front of the head or chest. Eyewitnesses who subsequently identified the bodies in a city mortuary testified that the victims had severe bruising and cuts on the face, smashed jaws, broken teeth, fractured limbs, and multiple bullet entry wounds in the face, chest or abdomen.
Among the victims were Cyril Daal, chairman of the Moederbond, Suriname’s largest trade union confederation; Kenneth Gonçalvez, Dean of Suriname’s Bar Association; Bram Behr, Leslie Rahman and Frank Wijngaarde, journalists; Jozef Slagveer, director of the Informa news agency; Andre Kamperveen, owner of the ABC radio station and former Minister of Culture and Sport; Gerard Leckie, Dean of the University of Suriname; Suchrim Oemrawsingh, a university lecturer; and businessman Robby Sohansingh. Two of the victims, Soerindre Rambocus and Jiwansingh Sheombar, were reported to be former army officers who had been in military detention for nine months, accused of involvement in an attempted coup in March 1982; they had been sentenced in November that year to long terms of imprisonment. The remaining three victims, John Baboeram, Eddy Hoost and Harold Riedewald, were their defence lawyers.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee had also found that “the victims were arbitrarily deprived of their lives contrary to article 6 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and had long recommended that Suriname “take effective steps (i) to investigate the killings of December 1982; (ii) to bring to justice any persons found to be responsible for the death of the victims) (iii) to pay compensation to the surviving families; and (iv) to ensure that the right to life is duly protected in Suriname.”
The military court on Friday evening later convicted six other former military officers, including the consul to neighbouring French Guiana, of murder for their part in the episode, including forcibly removing victims from their homes at night or participating in the shooting.
Suriname will now be watched closely on how it addresses the ruling of the court and the first important marker would be the President himself standing down and facing justice. The President has had a long history of adverse entanglement with the law and constitutional rule.
As a junior military officer, Mr Bouterse took part in the 1980 coup against Suriname’s first prime minister, Henck Arron, and immediately promoted himself to army chief-of-staff, becoming de facto head of the government.
Mr Bouterse left the army in late 1992 and went into business and politics, leading the pro-military National Democratic Party (NDP).
In 1999, Mr Bouterse was convicted in absentia of drug trafficking by a court in the Netherlands, though he has denied any wrongdoing.
It was also of immense interest here that leaked cables by US diplomats to Washington showed that there had been contacts between Mr Bouterse and Guyanese drug trafficker Roger Khan. Reports in the Dutch media had said that the US Drug Enforcement Administration had accumulated hard evidence that the two had been in contact while Mr Bouterse was a parliamentarian and there are records of calls between the two in late 2005 to mid-June 2006.
As it relates to the 1982 murders, Mr Bouterse and his NDP had consistently tried to obstruct court proceedings which began in 2007. In 2012, the NDP-controlled National Assembly passed an amnesty law giving him immunity but this was later invalidated by a Suriname court.
Now that the historic ruling of the court has been handed down, Suriname and its people have the basis on which to move forward and must do so with full respect for the rule of law and for the courts. The onus is now on President Bouterse to take the first step.
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