Suriname, Amnesty Laws & the December Murder Trials


Friday April 13th 2012, a Surinamese military court was expected to comment on a recently adopted controversial Amnesty bill in the case regarding the December Murders of 1982 in which Desiré Delano (Dési) Bouterse, the current President of the Republic of Suriname, is the prime suspect.

Suriname, a former Dutch colony, gained its independence on November 25th, 1975. Merely five years later, the new republic underwent a military coup-d'etat after which Sergeant Major Dési Bouterse, Chairman of the National Military Council, established his rule of the country. On December 8th 1982, fifteen opponents of the military regime were tortured and brutally killed in Fort Zeelandia in Paramaribo.

Since then, Bouterse has been regarded as the mastermind of these killings and has acknowledged political responsibility for these acts in 1998. However, due to a lack of political will no criminal investigations or prosecutions ever took place until 2007, when the victims' families finally succeeded in bringing criminal proceedings before a military court against Bouterse and 24 accomplices. In addition, the Dutch Supreme Court convicted Bouterse in absentia for cocaine trafficking and sentenced him to 11 years in prison in 1999. However, he never served his sentence as Suriname, like many countries, does not extradite its own nationals.

In spite of his conviction in The Netherlands and the ongoing criminal proceedings, Bouterse was democratically elected President on July 19th 2010. As the trial reached its final stages last month, it appeared that after an unfavorable witness testimony, Bouterse would most likely not escape a jail sentence this time around.

On March 21, a bill was put forward by his fellow party members in the parliament that would amend Suriname's current amnesty law and grant impunity for criminal offences committed "in the context of defence of the state" during the period of Bouterse's former rule. The bill was passed on April 4th and signed the same day by Vice -President Robert Ameerali.

On a national- as well as international level- the bill caused much upheaval. The separation of powers, enshrined in article 131 paragraph 3 of the Constitution determines that any interference in detection or prosecution or in cases pending in court is prohibited. Furthermore, the bill also runs counter to article 101 of the Constitution which requires that the President must act to promote the international legal order.

This bill is considered to be a flagrant violation of international law which established in numerous international court cases that amnesties are not permissible in cases that prevent the prosecution of individuals who may be criminally responsible for international crimes. One of the most well-known cases that dealt with the issue of amnesties was the Barrios Altos Case. In this case, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that amnesty laws shielding human rights violators from accountability breaches the obligations of member states to respect and ensure the rights in the American Convention of Human Rights.

Furthermore, the court stated that it violates the rights of victim’s families to a legal remedy in civil as well as in criminal proceedings to find out the fate of loved ones and those that can be held accountable for this. The Barrios Altos case has served as a legal basis all throughout the America’s for overturning amnesty laws. The amnesty laws in South-America were created after a period of dictatorial regimes in the 1970’s and 1980’s when gross human rights violations and crimes of international law were committed. In the context of transitional justice and the return of the rule of law, many politicians in power during the military dictatorships wanted to benefit from amnesty laws. In some cases, just like in Suriname, these ultimately amounted in self-amnesties. The decisions by the Inter-American Commission of Human rights and the judgments of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have led to an erosion of amnesty laws, and in part, contributed to a change in South-American legal culture. Over the last decade, trials against Heads of State have been initiated in countries in the region: Jorge Videla in Argentina, Juan María Bordaberry and Gregorio Álvarez in Uruguay, Alberto Fujimori in Peru and José Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala.

Up until now, current events demonstrate that Suriname remains unaffected by these changes that have taken place in legal culture on the South-American continent. Unfortunately, Suriname does not stand alone when it comes to awarding amnesties to those that are suspected to have participated in human rights violations. Brazil too, has not brought to justice those accused of human rights violations committed during the period of military rule (1964-1985). In December 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Brazilian amnesty laws are incompatible with the American Convention of Human Rights and have as a result no legal effect and cannot stand in the way of investigating human rights violations that took place during the military regime. In spite of a lack of political will to investigate these crimes, the Brazilian Judiciary has recently, on a federal level, made serious attempts to prosecute military officials who are suspected of committing human rights violations. These attempts are by many regarded as a positive development to restore the rule of law in Brazil. [5]

On Friday April 13th, the attention was on the military court of Suriname whose decision in light of the amnesty law was highly anticipated and brought about much speculation. The military court adjourned the case and declared that the amnesty law should be referred to the Constitutional Court for judicial review. The only problem is that a Constitutional Court has not yet come into existence.

At the moment, the justice system in Suriname is living through the most critical time in its history as its independence is being subjected to pressures by the current President’s barely disguised attempt to escape justice for his alleged participation in the murders of 15 opponents of the military regime in December 1982. [6]

The independence of the judiciary is at stake and in the coming weeks the struggle between Suriname’s judicial and political powers will continue. As was stated above, amnesty laws have one by one been ultimately declared null and void in the Americas and those who have passed them or benefited from them have been brought to justice or have been discredited in the face of their citizens.

The court will resume the trial on May 11th.  This will allow them more time to review the amnesty law and consider other options.