Author Archives: Wouter Veenendaal

Suriname – Defying the President, Suriname’s Military Court Decides to Continue Murder Trial Against Bouterse

Last Monday (30 January), Suriname’s military court – the Krijgsraad – decided to continue with the murder trial against President Bouterse. The President of Suriname faces criminal charges for his involvement in the 1982 ‘December murders’, as part of which fifteen political opponents of his military regime were killed in Fort Zeelandia, Bouterse’s headquarters. The trial against Bouterse, who between 1980 and 1988 ruled Suriname as a military dictator, started already in 2007. However, in the 2010 elections Bouterse and his NDP party claimed a resounding victory at the polls, after which the former dictator was once again installed as Suriname’s president. Since then, there has been a continuous tug of war between the president and the courts. Bouterse’s party first modified the amnesty law in an attempt to adjourn the trial, but the court considered this to be illegitimate interference in an ongoing process. Subsequently, Bouterse instructed the public prosecutor to halt the process in the interest of state security. After first postponing the trial, judge Cynthia Valstein-Montnor this week decided to continue with the trial, thereby not complying with the public prosecutor’s request. The judge summoned the prosecutor to start his address and propose a punishment straightaway, but his request for adjournment until Thursday 9 February was approved.

The relatives of the victims of 1982 are relieved about the court’s decision, and are optimistic about the likelihood that Bouterse will be convicted. However, many people in Suriname fear that the president will not quietly undergo the court’s verdict, and the lawyer of the victims’ families warned that he might now declare a state of emergency in order to sideline the military court. While praising the perseverance of the Krijgsraad and cherishing the court’s decision as a victory for the rule of law in Suriname, the lawyer expressed deep worries about the tensions surrounding the process and the political pressure on the judiciary, which was accused of compromising state security and conspiring with the president’s foreign enemies. Bouterse’s lawyer, on the other hand, argued that nobody in Suriname cares about these murders anymore, since they occurred thirty-five years ago. He claimed that a continuation of the trial would needlessly upset Suriname’s society and undermine the country’s fragile stability, and emphasized that the government’s order to adjourn the trial was fully in line with the Surinamese constitution, and should therefore be respected by the court.

The new developments in the murder trial against Bouterse cannot be regarded in isolation from broader developments in Surinamese society. While the country’s economic prospects appeared to be excellent not more than five years ago, at present Suriname faces a severe economic crisis, and according to the IMF the country’s economy contracted by a staggering 9 per cent in 2016. This economic downturn unquestionably damages Bouterse’s popularity: while the president enjoyed widespread support when he was voted into office in 2010, the deep recession has made him increasingly unpopular, especially because most of the NDP’s lavish campaign promises remain unfulfilled. In turn, while it may be accurate that most younger people do not care much about the 1982 murders, their increasing dissatisfaction with the president now appears to reinforce popular support for the murder trial.

Seychelles – President Michel announces resignation after first election victory for the opposition in 40 years

After having dominated Seychellois politics for nearly 40 years, on September 10th the Seychelles People’s Party (Parti Lepep in Creole) lost the parliamentary elections in the small Indian Ocean archipelago. The election victory of the opposition (the Seychelles Democratic Alliance – Linyon Demokratik Seselwa) constitutes a dramatic political shift in the country, and can be regarded as a major step in its development towards a consolidated democracy. The recent parliamentary elections were preceded by a presidential election in December 2015, which produced a razor-thin victory (50,15% of votes) for the incumbent president, James Alix Michel. After his party’s defeat in the parliamentary elections, Michel – who has been president of Seychelles since 2004 – announced his resignation, and his intention to hand over powers to the vice president, Danny Faure. The resignation of the 74-year old president – announced via a surprise address on national television – came as a major shock to the island nation.

The People’s Party and its predecessor, the Seychelles Peoples Patriotic Front (SPPF), have controlled Seychellois politics for virtually the entire post-independence period. Seychelles obtained independence from the United Kingdom in 1976, but within a year after the attainment of sovereignty, the Marxist SPPF, headed by its charismatic leader France-Albert René, staged a successful coup d’état with help from socialist African countries like Libya and Tanzania. Between 1977 and 1993, Seychelles was ruled as a single-party dictatorship, and human rights abuses were commonplace. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union instigated a transition to multi-party democracy, and Seychelles has been an electoral democracy since the early 1990s. However, the SPPF and René continued to win all subsequent elections, and international observers remained very critical of Seychellois democracy, highlighting the political fusion between the state and the ruling party as particularly problematic. Under René’s guidance Seychelles reached an impressive level of economic growth, as a result of which it is now one of the wealthiest countries of Africa. This economic success undoubtedly contributed to the continuing support for the SPPF, also after René transferred powers to Michel in 2004, and the SPPF was transformed into the People’s Party.

While the political opposition had boycotted the penultimate parliamentary elections in 2011 due to concerns about unequal campaign finance, in advance to last September’s election four opposition parties joined forces in a political alliance (the Seychelles Democratic Alliance), which managed to win 19 of the 33 parliamentary seats. Since the presidency of the country remains in the hands of the People’s Party, the tiny archipelago now enters a period of divided government. Both the newly designated president and the political leadership of Seychelles Democratic Alliance have declared their intention to cooperate with each other, but how this cooperation will play out in the coming years remains to be seen. While the two political parties are ideologically similar and do not have many disagreements regarding economic policies, the relationship between them has been marked by strong and sometimes personal antagonism.

Suriname – President Bouterse Keeps Dodging Murder Trial

On 5 August 2016, Suriname’s military court decided to once more postpone the murder trial of the country’s ruling president, Dési Bouterse, who is accused of participating in the killings of fifteen political opponents more than thirty years ago. These so-called ‘December murders’ (Dutch: Decembermoorden) occurred on the night of 8 December 1982, at the height of Suriname’s military regime, which was headed by Bouterse. In 2000, one month before the crime became too old to prosecute, a legal investigation was started by the Surinamese judiciary, which in 2007 resulted in a criminal proceeding against Bouterse. The elections of 2010 however produced a resounding victory for the former military ruler, who in that year was inaugurated as Suriname’s next president. In 2012, shortly before the conclusion of the criminal case, the Surinamese Parliament – headed by Bouterse’s National Democratic Party (NDP) – modified the country’s amnesty law, as a result of which the murder trial was adjourned. Suriname’s military court (the krijgsraad) reopened the proceedings in June 2016, considering that the new amnesty law illegitimately intervened in an ongoing trial, after which Bouterse instructed the public prosecutor’s office to halt the prosecution in the interest of state security. In reaction, the judge decided to once more postpone the murder trial until November of this year.

Suriname is a former Dutch colony which became a sovereign state in 1975. In the first five years after the attainment of independence, the country was ruled by a coalition of political parties, reflecting the multi-ethnic composition of the Surinamese population. Taking advantage of growing disenchantment stemming from the dire economic situation, in 1980 Sergeant Bouterse and fifteen other military officials led a successful coup d’état, known as the Sergeants’ Coup. In subsequent years, the country was ruled as a military dictatorship headed by Bouterse, and its ties with The Netherlands were severed. In addition to the ‘December murders’, Bouterse’s troops committed various war crimes as part of the Surinamese Interior War, among which the murder of forty innocent civilians in the village of Moiwana. In the late 1980s, multi-party democracy was reinstated in Suriname, and Bouterse established the NDP with the goal of remaining in power by democratic means. In the Netherlands, Bouterse was sentenced in absentia to eleven years in prison for his involvement in the transport of 474 kilos of cocaine, and Interpol issued an international arrest warrant against the former dictator.

While Bouterse’s NDP remained in the opposition for most of the 1990s and 2000s, the 2010 elections were won decisively by a political coalition (the Megacombinatie) spearheaded by the NDP. The subsequent installment of Bouterse as President led to renewed tensions with The Netherlands and the termination of Dutch development aid to Suriname, but as head of state, Bouterse obtained diplomatic immunity and Interpol’s arrest warrant was dropped. While Bouterse publicly accepted responsibility for the 1982 killings, he has argued that the country must move past its history, and has explained the Dutch actions against him as attempts of the former colonial power to keep controlling Suriname. Whereas Bouterse enjoyed great popular support at the start of his presidency – especially among the youth, who have little recollection of the events of the 1980s – the persistent economic malaise in Suriname has led to a sharp decrease in his popularity. In turn, this might have an effect on the President’s attempts to obstruct his own trial: while supporters of Bouterse continue to call for a complete cessation of the proceedings, the size of this group has been decreasing in recent months.

Comoros – Presidential Election Threatens Fragile Stability

Dubbed the ‘coup-coup islands’ due to a legacy of violent government takeovers, the small African island nation of Comoros (population: 800.000) has long been one of the most politically unstable countries in the world. Upon attaining independence in 1975, one of the four Comorian islands – Mayotte – voted to remain part of France, and in 2011 became a French Overseas Department. While the French incorporation of Mayotte was considered illegal by the United Nations, the significantly higher standards of living on this island stimulated secessionist aspirations on the two smaller Comorian islands – Anjouan and Mohéli – which also desired to be released from the largest island of Grande Comore, and to be reunited with France. After nearly three decades marred by successive coups, violent uprisings, and enduring economic malaise, in 2002 a unique electoral system that provides for a rotating presidency between the three islands was adopted. Every five years, a president from a different Comorian island is elected for a single term. Presidential elections are held under the French two-round system, but in the first round only voters on the island delivering the next president can participate. The three candidates with the most votes take part in a second round, in which all eligible Comorian voters can cast a ballot.

The first elections under the new system were won by Azali Assoumani from Grande Comore, who ruled the archipelago until 2006. Subsequently, presidents were elected from Anjouan (2006 – 2011) and Mohéli (2011 – 2016). While the economic situation on Comoros remains dire, and political violence has not been completely eradicated, the fact that all presidents elected under the new system were able to complete their term in office is widely regarded as a considerable achievement.

On 21 February 2016, the first round of a new presidential election was held on Grande Comore, which according to the constitution would deliver the next president. The outcome was close, and the top three candidates all obtained between 14 and 18 per cent of the votes. Among them was former president Assoumani, who in 1999 had staged a successful military coup, and contemporary vice-president Mohamed Ali Soilihi, who emerged as the winner of the first round. The second round of voting, which was held on 10 April 2016, again resulted in a very close outcome: Assoumani was declared the winner with 40,98% of votes, while Soilihi finished second with 39,87% of votes. While international observers considered the election to be free and fair, and the UN Secretary General congratulated the Comorian people with a peaceful election process, numerous irregularities were reported from the island of Anjouan, among which broken ballot boxes, accusations of ballot stuffing, and acts of violence. As a result, the Comoros constitutional court ordered a partial re-run of the election on this island, which occurred on 15 May 2016. Only 2% of the Comorian electorate was allowed to participate in the re-run, which did not produce a significantly different result: Assoumani remained the winner with 41,43% of votes, while Soilihi remained a close challenger with 39,66% of ballots cast.

The recent Comorian presidential election once more underscored the fragile political situation in the archipelago, which remains plagued by inter-island hostilities and separatism. The lack of a single Comorian identity, as well as the divisive effects of the integration of Mayotte into metropolitan France, continue to undermine economic and political progress in the island nation. Economic growth dwindled from 3,5% to 1% over the last two years, and while the new political system has put an end to the series of violent coups, it has not solved the formidable challenges and obstacles that continue to beset the Union of the Comoros.