PARAMARIBO: A court in Suriname on Friday convicted President Desi Bouterse of murder for the execution of 15 opponents in 1982 following a coup to seize power, sentencing the man who has dominated the former Dutch colony’s recent history to 20 years in prison.

Opposition parties called for Bouterse, currently in China on an official visit, to step down.

Bouterse led the South American country through the 1980s as head of a military government, then assumed office again in 2010 and secured re-election five years later.

The court ruled that Bouterse had overseen an operation in which soldiers under his command abducted 16 leading government critics — including lawyers, journalists and university teachers — from their homes and killed 15 of them at a colonial fortress in the capital Paramaribo.

One trade union leader survived and later gave testimony against Bouterse.

Critics have vilified the 74-year-old Bouterse as a dictator who has clung to power in the country of 560,000 people, which gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975.

In 1999, Bouterse was convicted in absentia of drug trafficking by a court in the Netherlands, though he has denied any wrongdoing. A Suriname judge in 2005 convicted Bouterse’s son, Dino, of leading a gang that trafficked in cocaine, illegal arms and stolen luxury cars.

As a junior military officer, Bouterse took part in the 1980 coup against Suriname’s first prime minister, Henck Arron, and immediately promoted himself to army chief-of-staff, becoming effective ruler of the government.

In a joint statement, the diplomatic missions of the Netherlands, United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Germany and France to Suriname said it was “critical” that the verdicts be “implemented and upheld in accordance with the rule of law”.

Bouterse left the army in late 1992 and went into business and politics, heading the pro-military National Democratic Party (NDP) and remaining a prominent if controversial national figure.

Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2019