The trial had been going on for several years in the Caribbean community nation. In a lengthy verdict the court on Nov. 29 did not order Bouterse’s detention. The president was on an official visit to China at the time of the sentencing.
The prosecution had asked for a 20-year jail term and the court ruling took over four hours to deliver. Bouterse was allowed two weeks to file an appeal.
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 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 Dec. 8, 1982 murders of the 15 men, that included journalists, military officers, union leaders, lawyers, businessmen and university lecturers.
The prosecution alleged that the men were arrested on the nights of Dec. 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 criticized 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 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.
In their statement, the Western countries said the trials have been instrumental in reconstructing the events and political context of Dec. 8, 1982.
“The integrity and independence of the Judiciary is a pillar in Suriname society. It is critical that the final verdicts in the killing of 15 innocent citizens — whatever those verdicts may be after the appeals process is complete — are implemented and upheld in accordance with the rule of law,” the statement noted.
“Lastly, our thoughts go out to all of the families and loved ones of those who have been a part of this tragedy. The verdict will undoubtedly prove instrumental in helping the nation move towards reconciliation,” the heads of the missions said.