Convicted in massacre, Suriname's leader hangs on tight

Full Screen
1 / 2

Suriname's President Desi Bouterse, left, shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019. (Florence Lo/Pool Photo via AP)

PARAMARIBO – Zahara Kamperveen laid white lilies before a glossy black plaque, then gently touched the name of her grandfather, a radio-station owner executed by a military junta in Suriname along with 14 other men nearly two decades before she was born.

"They were murdered because they fought for you and for me. For our future," the 19-year-old law student told a crowd that gathered to remember the victims.

The man responsible for the murder of André Kamperveen was President Desi Bouterse, according to a verdict delivered last month. Despite the finding that he ordered the 1982 killings known here as the December murders, Bouterse remains president and a possible candidate for a third term in elections next year in this sparsely populated former Dutch colony on the northeast edge of South America.

Bouterse, 74, says he's the victim of a politically motivated prosecution, and he retains strong support in his National Democratic Party, along with powerful allies like China. For the relatives of the slain and other Bouterse opponents, the president's continued freedom and political power are troubling signs of tiny Suriname's inability to emerge from the era of brutal South American strongmen into the democracy that has taken hold in most of the region.

The burly, goateed army sergeant led a 1980 coup that established military rule for more than seven years. After an attempted counter-coup and street protests supporting it, Kamperveen and other junta opponents — including prominent lawyers, trade union leaders and journalists — were arrested and shot point-blank, in Fort Zeelandia, a 17th-century colonial fortress in the capital, Paramaribo.

Before the victims were slain, some of them, under pressure from the military, declared in a television recording that they had been preparing an invasion with the help of foreign countries in order to expel the military regime. Military leaders declared that the victims were shot during an escape attempt.

After a brutal reign and 1987 transition to mostly free elections, under international pressure, Bouterse moved to the sidelines, where he started building a political party able to compete in free elections.

Suriname saw a halting progress toward democracy, including freer media and a largely independent judiciary.