It is very rare for a court to convict a former head of state for human rights crimes. So the final decision on Dec. 20 by the Hof van Justitie, the highest court in the small South American nation of Suriname, confirming the conviction of ex-President Desi Bouterse for the 1982 murders of 15 political prisoners, should have been cause for worldwide celebration. But the relative isolation of this former Dutch colony, the holiday season, and the crush of other events meant the ruling was virtually ignored outside The Netherlands — there at least, it was front-page news.
That the law caught up to Bouterse, after 41 years, is a tribute to the courage and independence of Surinamese judges, the perseverance and tenacity of the victims’ families, and the resilience of what the Surinamese proudly call rechtsstaat, the rule of law.
On Dec. 8, 1982, seven years after Suriname’s independence and almost three years after Bouterse’s military coup overthrew a fledgling constitutional government, his soldiers rounded up 15 leading political opponents from their homes in the middle of the night and brought them to the colonial-era Fort Zeelandia in the capital Paramaribo. The victims, who included the country’s chief labor leader, four lawyers, four journalists, an industrialist, and a former congressman, were brought before Bouterse and savagely tortured. Then they were shot to death and their bodies dumped at the morgue.
The “December murders” shocked this sparsely populated and ethnically diverse nation of white clapboard buildings, but no investigation was undertaken, even after Bouterse handed back power to elected officials in 1987; the new civilian leaders considered it too dangerous. As the statute of limitations was about to expire in 2000, however, the families of the victims obtained a court order mandating a judicial probe. In November 2007, the prosecutor general laid charges against Bouterse and 24 other suspects, and the Krijgsraad, a special military court comprised of civilian judges for the Bouterse case, was established. But the democratic election of Bouterse as president in July 2010 almost stopped the process. (He remains popular today, notably with the country’s poor.)
First, the trial was suspended for four years following a law passed by Bouterse’s party that granted immunity from prosecution for him and the others accused. When the courts ruled that the law violated the Western Hemisphere’s 1969 American Convention on Human Rights, Bouterse ordered the prosecutor general to block resumption of the trial on “national security” grounds, but the courts refused the request. Then Bouterse sought unsuccessfully to fire the prosecutor general, an independent judicial officer with lifetime tenure, for failing to stop the prosecution.
Finally, in 2019, while Bouterse was still president, the Krijgsraad sentenced him to 20 years in prison for planning and ordering the murders. But because Bouterse chose not to be present at that trial, he obtained a review and it took two more years before the Krijgsraad affirmed the conviction. Bouterse, who lost power in elections to current President Chan Santokhi in 2020, appealed to the country’s High Court. After more delays due to COVID and illnesses, the Court issued its final ruling before a small and tightly-controlled audience of lawyers, victims’ families, diplomatic observers from the United States and Netherlands and me as an observer for the International Commission of Jurists, which has followed the case for many years.
In confirming the conviction, the High Court did not order the immediate arrest of the 78-year-old Bouterse, and many worry that the government may get cold feet. The week before the final verdict, I attended a rally at which Bouterse addressed 4,000 of his supporters and called for calm, while speculating that things could “get out of hand.” The day after the ruling, however, President Santokhi, a former chief of police who led the investigation into the December murders, said that “the verdict must be carried out” and that there is “no option” other than Bouterse’s imprisonment. Indeed, any pardon for human rights crimes could violate Suriname’s obligations under the American Convention and undo the magnitude of what the country has accomplished.
One of those murdered in 1982 was the lawyer Kenneth Gonçalves. His widow, Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, also a lawyer, emigrated in 1983 to The Netherlands, where she became a member of the government advisory Council of State and chair of Amnesty International. Now 77, she traveled to Paramaribo with their daughter to hear the final verdict. Afterwards, they went to the cemetery, where she laid flowers at her husband’s grave, saying “it took a long time, Kenneth, but it was not in vain.”