Suriname president and ex-dictator vows not to interfere with own trial in 1982 massacre

By Arny Belfor, AP
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Suriname president-elect says his trial will go on

PARAMARIBO, Suriname — Incoming president and former dictator Desi Bouterse said through a spokesman Tuesday that he will not interfere in his ongoing trial for the massacre of political opponents during his military regime.

Bouterse, who twice led military coups in Suriname and has been convicted in the Netherlands of drug trafficking, will keep his campaign pledge not to use his office to influence the trial over the 1982 killings, spokesman Winston Lackin said in an interview.

“The president-elect has guaranteed that the justice system will continue to function independently, without any interference,” Lackin told The Associated Press.

Bouterse has been on trial with 11 co-defendants since November 2007 in a long-anticipated attempt to prosecute the perpetrators of a December 1982 massacre of politicians, journalists and other critics of his military regime. He publicly apologized for the killings in a March 2007 radio interview and said he accepted political responsibility, but denied any direct involvement.

Even as president, Bouterse does not have immunity from prosecution. But if he is found guilty during his five-year term, Bouterse has the option of granting himself amnesty, a fact his critics believe was a major motivating factor behind his presidential ambitions.

The trial has stalled repeatedly, in part because witnesses have failed to show up to testify. Bouterse has not attended any of the court sessions so far and is unlikely to in the future, said Hans Breeceld, a political analyst in Suriname.

“He will not interfere with the judicial branch, but I think he will continue to ignore the trial now that he’s president,” said Breeceld, director of a research center at Anton de Kom University.

Bouterse was elected Tuesday in a parliamentary vote that came after months of jostling among the South American nation’s many political factions. His coalition, which won a majority of the popular vote due to widespread dissatisfaction with the economy, won 23 seats in May elections but needed at least 36 to name a president.

Breeceld said many Surinamese people are hopeful that Bouterse has learned from the past.

“I think he’s learned from his coups and he would like to improve on what he’s done. And this is a country with a reasonably functioning democracy, so his presidency is the will of the people,” he said.

The U.S. and the Netherlands — two of the largest donors and trade partners of the former Dutch colony — acknowledged Bouterse as Suriname’s duly elected president but expressed concern about what he might do in office.

A statement released by the U.S. Embassy put the new government on warning.

“We will be clear with the incoming Suriname government that, for good relations with the United States and the international community, we expect this new government to stand firm against corruption and respect democratic principles, human rights, and the rule of law,” the State Department said.

The Dutch ambassador to Suriname, Aart Jacobi, reminded reporters Monday that Bouterse, who was convicted in absentia in 1999 and later sentenced to 11 years in prison, would not be welcome in the Netherlands.

Overseeing the 1999 conviction, Presiding Judge Bart Punt of the district court in The Hague said Bouterse abused his power by pulling strings to ensure shipments of cocaine were not discovered by his own customs officials.

Associated Press writer David McFadden contributed to this report from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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