Desi Bouterse will be sworn in today as president, the post to which parliament elected him on 19 July. We respect the will of the Surinamese people but we cannot forget that Bouterse continues to be charged with the murders of five journalists in 1982, while he was dictator. Even if legal proceedings are suspended for the duration of his presidency, it would be unacceptable it these murders were to go unpunished indefinitely.
A soldier by profession, Bouterse has been returned to power by an election. He first came to power in a coup on 25 February 1980 and went on to run the country with an iron hand for two periods, 1980-1987 and 1990-1991, violating fundamental human rights with no compunction.
The five journalists were among a total of 15 pro-democracy activists who were executed on the night of 8 December 1982 in Fort Zeelandia military barracks under his presumed responsibility. They were Andre Kamperveen, the owner and manager of Radio ABC, Frank Wijngaarde, a Radio ABC reporter, and three print media journalists, Leslie Rahman, Bram Behr and Jozef Slagveer.
After the massacre, soldiers torched the premises of Radio ABC, Radio Radika and the daily newspaper De Vrije Stem. No media was allowed to operate under Bouterse aside from the state radio SRS and the daily De Ware Tijd.
Sentenced to 11 years in prison in absentia in the Netherlands in 1999 on a charge of drug trafficking, Bouterse could still get a 20-year jail sentence in Surinam if convicted of the Fort Zeelandia massacre. A total of 25 people are involved in the case including former Prime Minister Errol Alibux and former army commander Arty Gorre.
While Bouterse claims to have apologised to the families of the Fort Zeelandia victims and to have recognised his political responsibility for the massacre, he has never admitted to being directly involved in their deaths. While leader of the main opposition party, he tried several times to get parliament to pass an amnesty law.
Like neighbouring South American countries whose current governments have done a great deal to ensure that past human rights violations are not forgotten, Surinam’s new government needs to understand that an election or, still less, an amnesty cannot resolve the problems of the past.
From left to right, middle rank : Leslie Rahman, Frank Wijngaarde, Bram Behr, Jozef Slagveer and Andre Kamperveen.