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.