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Lawmakers in Suriname have approved amnesty legislation that pardons President Desi Bouterse for human rights violations committed under his earlier military dictatorship (1980 – 1987/ 1990 – 1992), including the alleged murdering of opponents in December 1982, a crime more commonly known as ‘the December Murders’. The National Assembly passed the controversial bill after 12 hours of debate Wednesday. 28 Members of parliament voted in favor; 12 voted against. The bill was put forward by fellow party members of the former army commander, who argued that the amnesty was necessary ‘to unify a divided country.‘
The new law, which will go into effect upon Bouterse’s order, however excludes amnesty for crimes committed in the Moiwana-incident of 1986 (the massacre of 39 unarmed Maroons during Suriname’s civil war). The Moiwana exclusion was added as an amendment to the original legislation proposal upon request of Maroon politician Ronny Brunswijk.
Brunswijk, who is a former Bouterse foe but joined the government coalition that elected him president, voted in favor of the amnesty legislation “with a lot of pain in my heart.” He apologized to relatives of the victims of the December 1982 killings but said the country could not afford to have its president convicted at a trial. “We have to move forward into the future. We need to work at the development of our country,” Brunswijk said. “The only way to do that is by putting our grief aside.”
There has been much criticism about the ramifications of this new law, as well as the speed at which it was rushed through parliament. Its timing is no coincidence, however, as the court martial for the December murders is drawing to an end.
Desi Bouterse seized power of Suriname in a 1980 coup. Under his political responsibility, 15 political opponents (mostly well-known journalists, lawyers and union leaders) of the de facto government were taken from their homes to Fort Zeelandia on 8 December 1982, and executed. It was also under his rule, that government soldiers gunned down 39 unarmed villagers (mostly senior citizens, women and children) in the Maroon town of Moiwana in November 1986. Instructions by the Inter American Court of Human Rights that the Suriname government should prosecute the perpetrators of this crime have yet to be executed.
Desi Bouterse allowed the return of civilian rule in Suriname in 1987 but staged a second coup in 1990. He stepped down as military chief in 1992, but has remained a powerful force in the former Dutch colony.
The December Murders and (albeit to a lesser extend) the Moiwana incident have cast a long shadow over Suriname for the last 30 years. It was only in 2007, 20 years after democracy had returned to the country, that a court case against the suspects of 8 December 1982 began. The main suspect is Desi Bouterse. He has previously accepted ‘political responsibility’ for the slayings, but said he was not present when the executions took place. Witnesses in the trial have disputed that claim.
The trial did not prevent Bouterse from getting elected president in 2010. Nor has the 1999 ruling of a Dutch criminal court that convicted Bouterse in absentia to an 11 year prison sentence for drugs smuggling; a verdict that was never carried out because Bouterse cannot be extradited under Surinamese law. As a journalist for Radio Nederland Wereldomroep puts it, “young voters, in particular, don’t pay much attention to Bouterse’s negative image.”
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Wednesday called on the Suriname government to withdraw the proposed legislation that would provide impunity for offences committed ‘in the context of defense of the state’ during the period of Bouterse’s former rule. Among the 15 murder victims of 8 December 1982 were 5 journalists.
Global human rights watchdog Amnesty International also urged Suriname’s parliament to reject the proposed amnesty law , saying it is “a flagrant attempt by President Bouterse to evade investigation for human rights abuses committed during his rule and deny justice to his victims and their families.”