The Surinamese amnesty act is a blessing for Bouterse

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The Surinamese parliament will almost certainly adopt an amnesty law granting President Desi Bouterse immunity from prosecution for his part in the killing of political opponents in 1982 – ‘the December murders’. The bill has been put forward by fellow party members of the former army commander and will probably be supported by almost all the coalition parties in parliament.

The Surinamese parliament is not keen on drafting bills and passing them. There are scores of important proposals that have been waiting to be dealt with for many years: an anti-corruption bill, environmental bills, bills on land use, traffic and housing bills - to name just a few.

So it was highly unusual that, when the amnesty bill was announced two weeks ago, it started going through the assembly immediately. There has been criticism about the speed at which it is being rushed through parliament. It seems that caution is of secondary importance. And its timing is no coincidence either, as the court martial for the December murders is drawing to an end.

December murders
On 8 December 1982, 15 political opponents of the de facto government were taken from their homes to Fort Zeelandia and executed under the political responsibility of the then coup leader and army commander Desi Bouterse.

The murders 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 began. The main suspect is Desi Bouterse.

Leopard’s spots
The trial did not prevent Bouterse getting elected president in 2010. He has been convicted of drugs smuggling by a Dutch court and still has the prison sentence hanging over him. However, young voters, in particular, don’t pay much attention to his negative image.

“We are young and we want stability in the country. And besides, we were not around when the December murders happened,” says Melvin Bouva, a member of Bouterse’s party and one of the authors of the amnesty bill. “The outcome of the trial could plunge us into a deep adventure. It will be a disaster if the president cannot govern the country. We want to know the truth too, but we can do that without Bouterse going to prison. Amnesty is the best solution for the country.”

Up until three weeks ago, Bouterse was Suriname’s most popular politician according to an opinion poll. Within one and a half years, he had put the country back on the map in the region and attracted investors. Both friends and foes, including the United States and France, have praised his drive. Even his former political opponents have been forced, albeit reluctantly, to admit that things are not going badly under the former coup leader. But within a couple of days, he has gone from being given the “benefit of the doubt” to being seen as a “leopard that never changes his spots”.

Cabinet reshuffle
There is also a lot of criticism of the bill abroad. International lawyers believe that amnesty cannot apply to human rights violations and that an ongoing trial cannot be torpedoed by new legislation. In the meantime, France and the US are urging for true democracy to be introduced: the separation of judicial and political powers.

But criticism will probably never override Suriname’s ever-present political pragmatism. Principles are quite a luxury in Surinamese politics. The bill needs the support of at least one of the coalition partners. Both Paul Somohardjo of Pertjajah Luhur (PL) or Ronnie Brunswijk of the Interior Party ABOP, want to stay in power. And being on good footing with Bouterse is extremely useful, not least because of an imminent cabinet reshuffle. And it is these two parties which have most to lose.

It stands to reason that, if the two parties show their loyalty to Bouterse, the reshuffle will not be quite as drastic as looked probable just a couple of weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the trial is coming to an end. On 13 April, the public prosecutor will sum up his case. The judge will hand down a sentence in May. At least, that is how a trial is meant to go, according to international law. But the question is whether the court martial judge will have the guts to reconvene the trial after the amnesty act has been adopted. The perpetrators are likely to be let off anyway, regardless of the verdict.

Hugo Chávez
The next few weeks will see a power struggle between Suriname’s judicial and political powers. It will not be surprising if - in spite of international pressure – Suriname’s politicians win over the judges.