Return of the Strongman
Ex-dictator, Desi Bouterse, who staged two coups, was convicted in 1999 in the Netherlands for cocaine smuggling and is on trial for the 1982 murder of 15 of his political opponents, is the new president of Suriname. There, the president is not elected directly by the popular vote but by two-thirds of their National Assembly’s 51 members. In the May parliamentary elections, Bouterse’s party had secured 23 seats and since then had been locked in negotiations with smaller parties to garner the requisite number which he did on Monday.
The Netherlands, which had granted Suriname independence in 1975 with a billion-dollar handshake, tersely announced that the former strongman would only be welcome to serve out his 11-year prison sentence. As president, Bouterse will be protected by immunity that heads of state enjoy under international law. According to the Dutch Foreign Ministry, they will not be able to arrest Bouterse until his term finishes.
Only five years after independence, Bouterse then an army sergeant major, staged a coup against the legally elected government, became increasingly dictatorial after he dissolved the Legislature and banned opposition parties. In 1974, more than one quarter of the country had fled to Holland in fear of what independence would bring. They were very prescient.
In 1982, 15 political opponents were brutally murdered while in army captivity in Fort Zeelandia. The 15 including journalists, lawyers, trade union leaders, a university teacher, and a businessman were arrested from their homes, and then tortured, and killed. Bouterse, who had assumed official leadership of the army at the time, claimed that those executed were “all people connected with parts of the CIA” and were attempting to topple the government. He also said they were shot while trying to escape.
Twenty-five years later, in 2007, a trial was finally commenced to bring justice to those whose lives had been so cruelly snuffed out. Bouterse publicly announced that he was “politically responsible” for the murders since he was head of government and the military at the time but he was not present at the killings. He did not pull the trigger. Bouterse, not surprisingly, also called for “amnesty” for the suspected killers, of whom he was on top of the list.
According to Amnesty International, “(Bouterse’s) account was contradicted by the recorded testimony of sole survivor of the massacre, trade unionist and Suriname Labour Party leader Fred Derby, who died in May 2001.”
On Bouterse’s claim that he was not present at the murders, he was also contradicted by others “Bouterse was there,” said Flohr Unno, a former bodyguard, who recalled seeing the victims enter Fort Zeelandia where they were rounded up, tortured and shot on December 8, 1982. Eleonore Geer-Brakke, Bouterse’s ex-secretary, also testified that Bouterse was at the fort.
On the claim that the detainees were attempting to escape, this was also rebutted by many at the trial. Hedy de Miranda, widow of slain radio-journalist Frank Wijngaarde, told a military court that her husband’s body bore five gunshot wounds to the chest, one on his temple, while his face had a deep cut, which punctured his eye and split his nose.
“I am a math teacher and if the court give me everything I need including a baton, a sharp knife and a man with grey hair (pointing at Bouterse’s attorney), then I will make a deep cut in his face, bust his head and shoot five holes in his chest. If he is still standing and manages to run away, then I indeed believe that they (the victims) were trying to escape and shot to death,” said the widow.
Bouterse is scheduled to appear in court in Suriname on Friday over his role in the murders. However, having failed to show up for any hearings since his trial began three years ago, it appears unlikely that as the new president he will honour the court date. The question for us in Guyana has to be, “What does it say for democracy when Surinamese can overlook Bouterse’s chequered past and place the future of their country in his hands?”