PARAMARIBO, Suriname – Former president and military strong man, Desi Bouterse says the 20-year jail sentence “came as no surprise,” as the acting Attorney General, Carmen Rasam, said that his “victims were riddled with a hail of bullets” as the appeal case continued regarding Bouterse’s complicity in the murder of 15 men on December 8, 1982.
“Life is the highest good of every human being. In an extremely cold-blooded and calculating manner, the suspect deprived these 15 victims of the right to life. The victims were riddled with a hail of bullets that were fired at them at close range. Relatives have not even had the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones in a dignified manner,” Rasam said as she sought 20 years unconditional prison for the former head of state.
But in a statement issued by Bouterse’s National Democratic Party (NDP), he said given the course of the criminal process since it was started, the sentence did not come as a surprise to him. In the statement, Bouterse calls on his fellow party members to keep calm.
Bouterse has lodged an appeal because he disagrees with the judgment and also denies premeditation. He argues that matters have consistently been omitted from the procedural documents in his favour.
The NDP says the criminal process must run its course.
In August 2021, the Court Martial of Suriname upheld the 2019 military court ruling of a 20-year-jail term on Bouterse following a trial that had been going on for several years.
In 2017, Bouterse along with 23 co-defendants had 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 nights of December 7 and 8 and transferred to Fort Zeelandia, the then headquarters of the Surinamese National Army. They said the men were tortured and summarily executed.
Earlier this month, attorney Irvin Kanhai, who is also representing Iwan Dijksteel, Stephanus Dendoe, Benny Brondenstein and Ernst Geffery challenged the objectivity of the military judge, Colonel Dennis Kamperveen, claiming that one of the victims, André Kamperveen and the judge, have a common grandfather. The men are challenging their 10-year jail term.
But the Public Prosecution Service argued that it had no need to hear witnesses during the appeal process, reiterating its call for Bouterse, 77, who led Suriname during the 1980s as head of a military government and de facto leader, to be arrested and given his unconditional prison sentence.
Bouterse took office as president in 2010, following a democratic election and was elected for another term in 2015.
Rasam told the court on Tuesday, “we are dealing with a suspect who has been president of the Republic of Suriname, while this criminal case was on trial. The suspect has been the highest responsible person in the country during the period of the criminal offense.
“The rulers at the time were not prepared to return the power of government to the people and saw any resistance from society as an acute threat to their rule. Since going back to a democratic regime would mean that they would have to hand over military power, which they were in no way prepared to do so. In response, any action taken by third parties to push back or undermine military authority was eliminated,” Rasam argued.
She told the court the crucial question that looms throughout the process is: “Does the alleged regime change as presented by the accused justify these summary executions of the named persons, who were inhumanly and cruelly deprived of their lives without any form of legal process?
“The victims, who, because of the location where they were then housed and the heavy guards in the Fort, could never have been a threat to this military regime. There was therefore no need to kill these defenseless victims in such a gruesome manner,” Rasam argued.
She said Bouterse can rightly be held responsible for the criminal offense, namely murder, on the basis of the evidence presented.
She said Bouterse’s statement that an invasion was imminent and that a plane flew overhead and that shots were fired in a panic situation, or that Paul Bhagwandas gave the order without his consent to shoot at the 15 victims, has no bearing whatsoever.
The acting Attorney General argued that it can be concluded from all evidence and witness statements that the murders were orchestrated and that Bouterse, Gefferie, Dendoe, Dijksteel and Brondenstein played an important role and task in the killings.
Rasam referring to statements from witnesses and Bouterse himself that he was present in the fort while some of the men were shot, but he did not suspect that the shots were used to kill the detainees, said she found it striking that Bouterse, as absolute ruler and commander, did not take any sanctions against the then battalion commander Bhagwandas when he had officially reported to him that 15 of the 16 detainees had been shot during an escape attempt.
She also found it strange that while Bouterse indicated that he did not believe Bhagwandas’s story for a moment, he nevertheless went to the government with the statement and later presented that statement during a radio and television broadcast.
According to Rasam, Bouterse took no action against the battalion commander to whom he had handed over command of Fort Zeelandia because the murders were committed with his approval or knowledge. During the criminal proceedings, several witnesses stated that it was impossible to flee from the place where the detainees were held.
Bouterse has always maintained during the trial that he was not present in the fort when the men were shot.
During her presentation Rasam, also spent time reflecting on the political situation in Suriname in the run-up to the murders. She noted that after the 1980 coup d’état, the military rulers curtailed the rights and freedoms of citizens, causing widespread dissatisfaction. Among other things, parliament was dissolved and the Constitution was rendered inoperative.
There was also a ban on gatherings, the media restricted and the activities of political parties were prohibited.
Rasam told the Court that the military leadership, which had political and administrative power, had violently suppressed protests because otherwise it would lead to a return to constitutional rule.