President of Suriname Desi Bouterse. (FILE)
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PARAMAIRBO, Surname – A Military Court Friday sentenced President Desi Bouterse to 20 years in jail for his involvement in the 1982 murders of 15 political opponents of his then military government.
The trial has been going on for several years and in a lengthy verdict the Court did not order his detention. Bouterse is now on an official visit to China and has two weeks to file an appeal.
The prosecution had asked for a 20 year jail term and the court ruling took over four hours to deliver.
In an immediate statement following the verdict, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States said they had closely monitored the progress of the trial over the years.
“We appreciate the challenging circumstances under which the Military Court operates and commend the Court on reaching a verdict in the cases before the Civilian Chamber,” the Heads of Mission of the Western countries said in their joint statement.
Last year, the lawyer for President Bouterse, had asked the Military Court to acquit his client after brandishing the victims as “traitors”.
In 2017, Bouterse along with 23 co-defendants appeared in the Military Court after the Court of Justice had earlier rejected a motion to stop the trial. The former military officers and civilians had been charged with the December 8, 1982 murders of the 15 men that included journalists, military officers, union leaders, lawyers, businessmen and university lecturers.
The prosecution had alleged that the men were arrested on the night of December 7 and 8 of that year and transferred to Fort Zeelandia, then the headquarters of the Surinamese National Army. They said the men were tortured that night and summarily executed.
The Court of Justice ruled that the criminal case should be continued by the Military Court since the prosecutors’ request to end the trial wasn’t based on any provision in the Surinamese criminal law.
In June 2016, the Military Court ruled that the Amnesty Law, which was criticised by human rights groups as an attempt to shield Bouterse, was unlawful.
Several years ago, the former army commander claimed political responsibility for the murders since he was head of government at the time of the massacre, but has denied any personal involvement in the killings.
The military government claimed that the men had conspired to stage a coup. Bouterse later became president of Suriname through democratic elections in May 2010 and won re-election in May 2015.
In December 2017, Ruben Rozendaal, one of the co-defendants in the mass murder trial involving Bouterse, died, after allegedly committing suicide by bleeding to death following a cut on his left arm.
The Military Court convicted Bouterse on the charges of murder and provocation to murder. The other criminal offenses, such as deprivation of liberty and torture, are time-barred.