PARAMARIBO, Suriname -- A year and a half ago, President Desiré Bouterse could barely get an audience with anyone: Regional leaders shunned him. Nervous diplomats raised eyebrows and the tiny South American nation’s former colonial power reminded all that he was a wanted man.
Now, the convicted drug trafficker, one-time dictator and accused killer is winning over citizens and regional leaders as he transforms his image into that of a democrat — even as he stands trial for the December 1982 military roundup and execution of opponents.
“He’s a good leader,” Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said as he and fellow Caribbean Community leaders recently concluded a gathering of their regional bloc, known as Caricom, that Bouterse currently chairs. “I can’t speak about the past. I can speak about the present. I think he means well for Suriname and the region. I’m very impressed of his leadership thus far of Caricom.”
But the legal case hanging over Bouterse (pronounced BOW-ter-say) could jeopardize it all if the three-judge panel believes dramatic testimony at his trial on Friday that put him at the scene of the executions. As the testimony was being heard, supporters in parliament sought to grant him amnesty, shielding him from conviction in the case. The vote was delayed after they failed to get a quorum.
“I am convinced .…the goal is to get them off the hook,” said a dismayed Sunil Oemrawsingh, 52, whose uncle was executed 300 yards away from where he slept.
The trial, Oemrawsingh said, is about finding a new beginning for Suriname, where the murders remain embedded in the nation’s psyche despite the passage of time.
“People cannot expect forgiveness from the victims without us knowing who to forgive, and what to forgive,” he said. “We have to establish the facts: what happened; when did it happen; and who did it? Then we can say ‘Let’s talk about reconciliation and forgiveness.’ ”
In 2007, months before the start of the trial, Bouterse offered a public apology and accepted “political responsibility” for the murders of the 15 prominent opposition leaders. He has denied any direct involvement.
Family members, human rights groups and opposition lawmakers, including former president Ronald Venetiaan, have all asked that the proposed legislation be voted down.
“They want to prevent the continuation of the trial, which is now at a stage of conclusion,” said Chandrikapersad Santokhi, a lawmaker and former justice minister. “This can be very damaging for the suspects, particularly for the president and will jeopardize his position as president of the country.”
In a statement to The Miami Herald, Bouterse’s cabinet office denied accusations that he’s interfering in the judicial process. Parliament is independent and amnesty is completely in accordance with the constitution, the statement said.
“The President is confident and is convinced of his innocence in a fair trial, which he expects,” the office of the cabinet said. “He tirelessly pursues his vision to complete the social and economic goals for the people of Suriname, set out by his government.”
That means improving lives of the Suriname’s half-million people by transforming the isolated, forest-covered former Dutch colony, Bouterse, 66, said in a rare but brief interview.