Last month, during a somber ceremony, wreaths and flowers were laid at Bastion Veere in Fort Zeelandia where, on Dec. 8, 1982, the 15 political opponents of the then military government of President Desi Bouterse were executed.
The 15 people, including journalists, trade union leaders, military officers, businessmen, lawyers and university lecturers were arrested at their homes, tortured in Fort Zeelandia and then shot. Bouterse and 24 other suspects have gone on trial for the murders. Military prosecutor Roy Elgin has sought a 20-year jail term for Bouterse, who has insisted on his innocence.
Sunil Oemrawsingh, a relative of one of those killed, said given that the trial is in its final stages, there could be at least some closure to this dark page in Suriname’s history.
“This not easy,” said an emotional Oemrawsingh, adding that the victims were fighting for democracy, justice and truth when they were killed.
Dew Baboeram, whose brother was one of the victims, was quoted in the media as saying that neither he nor the members of the “Committee of Victims and Relatives of Political Violence” had been invited to attend the annual memorial service.
For the past 35 years there have been calls for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. Baboeram’s organization is calling for “truth and reconciliation.” During a recent interview with de Ware Tijd newspaper, Baboeram said Bouterse did not kill anyone on Dec. 8, 1982 nor did he gave the order to do so. He said the 20-year jail term which is being sought is an injustice against Bouterse and claimed he had credible information that his own brother, John Baboeram, a lawyer who was among the victims, was conspiring with others to overthrow the then government in 1982.
“It is painful to hear, but my brother was conspiring to overthrow the government,” said Baboeram.
Sergeant Major Bouterse came to power on Feb. 25, 1980, with 15 low ranking officers of the Surinamese National Army, in a coup that ousted the Henck Arron-administration. The coup was the result of a conflict that observers said stemmed from a move by the soldiers to establish a trade union.
Despite initial support for the coup, opposition soon mounted as Surinamese became disgruntled with the policies of the military government. There were several attempts to overthrow Bouterse’s government. In 1982, Suriname’s then most powerful trade union De Moederbond organized several general strikes and when the then Grenada Prime Minister Maurice Bishop made an official visit to the Dutch-speaking country, striking workers of the national power company interrupted the power supply, leaving a mass meeting of Bouterse in the dark.
While Bouterse’s rally suffered from a power outage, there was no such problem for De Moederbond, which organized a rally on the other side of the capital attracting a large crowd. Bouterse had vowed then to send Cyrill Daal, chairman of De Moederbond, the bill for the rally and that Daal could keep the change. A few weeks later Daal was shot dead with 14 other men.
Since Bouterse came to power through democratic elections in 2010, he has made several attempts to stop the criminal case that began on Nov. 30, 2007.
In April 2012, the Amnesty Law was amended so suspects of the “December Murders”, as it is known here, would no longer be prosecuted. This law was set aside by the courts and In June 2016, Bouterse invoked Article 148 of the Constitution, which gives the government authority to instruct the prosecutor general to stop a criminal trial if that is in the interest of national security. That attempt was also squashed by the Court of Justice.
On June 28, 2017, the prosecutor general sought a prison sentence of 20 years against Bouterse.
A 20-year sentence was also demanded against six other suspects.
Ruben Rozendaal, who according to the prosecutor should receive a 10-year sentence, committed suicide last month.
Of the 16 military officials who participated in the Feb. 1980 coup, only six are still alive.