Suriname’s ex-dictator returns, brining painful flashbacks and worries for the future

By Ben Fox, AP
Thursday, August 12, 2010

Suriname under scrutiny as ex-dictator returns

PARAMARIBO, Suriname — A former coup leader, convicted drug trafficker and accused murderer was sworn in as Suriname’s president Thursday in a ceremony avoided by all the hemisphere’s other leaders.

No foreign heads of state attended the inauguration at a sports arena built by the Chinese government. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had been expected to attend but canceled at the last minute. The U.S. — which has warned the new leader to respect human rights and the rule of law — sent only its ambassador.

The new president vowed to fight corruption and respect the nation’s laws as well as the views of the political opposition. “This president will be a president for all of Suriname, no matter who they are,” he said in his inaugural speech, speaking in Dutch, the country’s official language.

Shop owner Sunil Oemrawsingh was so appalled he couldn’t watch the ceremony — or understand why so few of his countrymen agree with him.

The 50-year-old has a particular reason for outrage: The new president, Desi Bouterse, is on trial for his alleged role in the abduction and summary execution of Oemrawsingh’s uncle and 14 other leading citizens, all suspected enemies of the military regime, on a December night in 1982.

“I must admit, I am bitter about this,” Oemrawsingh said.

Bouterse’s return to power has people in ethnically diverse Suriname and abroad wondering whether it will also mean a return to the dark days of the past, when human rights were trampled and isolated Suriname was a launching pad for drugs bound for the United States and Europe.

“Has he changed? I hope so,” said Henri Behr, a management consultant whose younger brother — a muckraking journalist and violinist in Suriname’s symphony orchestra with two young children — was abducted and executed by Bouterse’s soldiers. “I’d like to think he will be different, but perhaps that’s being naive.”

The immediate question for many in this thickly forested Amazon basin nation of about 500,000 people is what will happen with the trial for the “December killings.” So far, there is no indication of any changes.

“The trial goes on,” said Jennifer Geerlings-Simons, the speaker of parliament and a close ally of the new president. When asked to elaborate, she changed the subject and called criticism of Bouterse propaganda.

Bouterse and nearly 20 others face charges that include murder in a case that has proceeded fitfully before a three-judge panel since November 2007.

The former dictator was scheduled to make his first appearance as a witness Friday, but the hearing was delayed — ostensibly because security forces would have been spread too thin between the inauguration and trial.

In the past, Bouterse has accepted “political responsibility” for the killings but denied a direct hand in them. As president he is not required to testify and he could engineer a pardon if convicted in a case that could get him a 20-year sentence. Some fear he could interfere with the trial if testimony gets too uncomfortable, denying the families a resolution.

“We want to know who killed our loved ones and why they died,” Oemrawsingh said.

Bouterse, 64, has loomed over Surinamese politics for three decades. He first came to power in February 1980, when he led a coup that suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament five years after Suriname gained independence from the Netherlands. He led another coup in 1990, three years after allowing the return to civilian rule under international pressure, and remained a powerful force even after stepping down as army chief in 1992.

He has long been dogged by allegations of corruption. Convicted of drug trafficking in absentia in 1999 in the Netherlands — prosecutors said he was the leader of the “Suri Cartel” — he was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He avoided that punishment because Suriname doesn’t have an extradition treaty with its former colonial ruler.

Bouterse has shrugged off the conviction while strengthening his political machine. And he has traded his fatigues for dress shirts and slacks, often wearing his loafers without socks.

His aides declined requests for an interview and his large security detail discouraged impromptu attempts to speak with him as he held a long meeting over drinks before the inauguration.

His son, Dino Bouterse, often part of his entourage, insisted the country has nothing to worry about.

“I know he will be a good president because I know what kind of man he is,” the son said. “He will be the best.”

In the May elections, Bouterse’s party captured 40 percent of the popular vote and 23 seats in parliament with a populist campaign that featured pledges to build more houses and increase social security spending. His pledges to invigorate the economy — largely dependent on resource extraction including gold, bauxite and offshore oil — resonate in a country where formal jobs are scarce.

But it was his strategic coalition-building that won the presidency.

To secure enough support in parliament, he won over sworn enemies. Among those is Ronnie Brunswijk, who in the 1980s led an armed force largely made up of Maroons, descendants of runaway African slaves, against Bouterse in a civil war that killed hundreds of people.

After this year’s election, Brunswijk called Bouterse a murderer, then days later embraced him as a coalition partner.

“The people of Suriname say they want Mr. Bouterse so I have to accept that,” Brunswijk said. “If my grandfather’s grandfather can make peace with the slave masters then I can make peace with Mr. Bouterse.”

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