Mr. Desiré Delano Bouterse, a former military dictator, was elected President of the Republic of Suriname on July 19, 2010, by 36 votes out of 50 parliamentary votes. He will be inaugurated today August 12th in Paramaribo in the presence of the outgoing president Ronald Venetiaan. Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, cancelled his attendance because of growing tensions at the border with Colombia.
Suriname, a former Dutch colony, gained independence in 1975. There are close historic ties between the two countries. They share the same official language and a very large number of people of Surinamese origin live in The Netherlands. In The Netherlands, as well as in the international community, his election is controversial for several reasons. In 1980 , Dési Bouterse seized power by overthrowing the Ferrier government by a military coup and he became Chairman of the National Military Council until 1988.
On December 8 and 9, 1982, during his military rule, fifteen political opponents were tortured and brutally killed. This event caused public outrage and had a traumatic effect in Suriname as well as among the Surinamese immigrant community and in Dutch society at large.
In 1983, the UN Human Rights Committee adopted its views under art. 5. para 4, of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the Communications Nos. 146/1983 and 148-154/1983, submitted by family members of the victims. With respect to the exhaustion of domestic remedies, the author states that no recourse has been made to any court in Suriname because "it became obvious from different sources that the highest military authority ... was involved in the killing”.
This was also confirmed by an earlier report of the International Commission of Jurists. In addition, the report of the Special Rapporteur , Amos Wako, to the UN Economic and Social Council, concluded in 1985 that “summary or arbitrary executions took place”, and “that the right to life in Suriname cannot be effectively protected unless an independent inquiry is conducted”
In a local Amsterdam television interview on 8 December 1998, Dési Bouterse himself acknowledged responsibility saying :
“ I was responsible because I was head of the Army, I was the commander, commander in chief, wasn’t I?”
However, at least one victim had Dutch nationality and possibly others did as well. Subsequently, there has been a criminal trial to prosecute Mr. Bouterse for his alleged role in the December killings of 1982 in the Netherlands.
The Amsterdam Court of Appeal ordered the prosecution of Mr. Bouterse. The Court deemed the killing punishable by an international customary rule prohibiting torture.The Court of Appeal established jurisdiction on the basis of the universality principle. This Court also determined that there is no need to examine the claim to immunity since perpetrating very grave criminal offences of this kind cannot be regarded as part of the official duties of a ‘head of state”.
After an appeal in cassation in the interests of the law, the Dutch Supreme Court quashed the disputed decision. The Supreme Court considered that the principle of legality stipulated in art. 1 of the Dutch Criminal Code and art. 16 of the Constitution prescribes an unreserved prohibition of trial and punishment of a person for an offence that did not constitute an offence under Dutch law at the time it was committed. By doing so the Court followed the reasoning of the British House of Lords in the Pinochet Case.
Also, the Court found that Dutch courts do not have jurisdiction in relation to the alleged acts of torture committed before the entry into force of the Convention against Torture of 1984 and the Dutch Torture Convention Implementation Act of 1988. The Supreme Court did not address the question of President Bouterse’s immunity and left the decision of the Court of Appeal intact on this legal issue.
However, this was not the end of his legal problems. President Bouterse ran into trouble with the law once more in 2001 when he was convicted in absentia for cocaine trafficking and was subsequently sentenced to 11 years in prison by the Dutch Supreme Court .
This made the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs state : “The new president of Suriname is very welcome in The Netherlands – to sit out a jail sentence!”
Unfortuately, due to a lack of political will no criminal investigations nor prosecutions took place in Suriname. It was not until 2007 when finally the victim’s families were able to instigate proceedings before a military tribunal against Mr. Bouterse and 24 accomplices which are still pending.
According to the Constitution of the Republic of Suriname of 1987, the powers of the President are far reaching. Apart from being Head of State he is also Head of Government, Chairman of the Council of State and of the Security Council (art. 90-1). He is responsible to the National Assembly (art. 90-2).The President shall have the direction of foreign relations and shall promote the development of the international legal order (art. 101). According to article 109 the President is authorized to grant pardons for penalties inflicted by judicial sentence.
Today the newly appointed Chef Cabinet Harvey Naarendorp, a former diplomat, announced the establishment of a new Truth Commission to investigate the December killings of 1982. Furthermore Mr. Naarendorp stated that the new government will not interfere with the pending criminal proceedings against Mr. Bouterse as this would undermine the constitutional principle of the separation of powers.
When the democratically elected President shall address the UN General Assembly next month we will hear his future plans and policies and probably little about his past.