PARAMARIBO, Suriname (AP) — 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.
As he built his party, both the former strongman and his son were convicted of narcotics trafficking, Bouterse by a Dutch court in absentia.
An investigation into the December murders began in 2000. As the court slowly called witnesses and heard evidence, year after year, Bouterse not only remained free, he returned to power. In 2010 he was elected president, a position he has held since.
Most Surinamers are below the age of 30 and don’t remember the coup years. In a wildly diverse country of African, indigenous, Asian and European descent, Bouterse’s National Democratic Party unites the country’s many ethic groups and maintains vigorous outreach to the poor, including food distribution in low-income sections of the capital.
Bouterse is a charismatic public speaker and joke-teller who sang the Frank Sinatra classic “My Way” at his 2015 inauguration.
He was on a state trip to China when the December murders trial ended on Nov. 29 with his conviction and sentencing to 20 years in prison.
The trial by a three-judge panel found that Bouterse was present at Fort Zeelandia when the executions were carried out and that he was in charge of them. It was not proven that Bouterse himself shot anyone.
The sole survivor of the killings described Bouterse to the trial judges as being in charge, “calm and cold-blooded.”
The offences were committed “not on impulse, but after consultation and calm deliberation and with full awareness,” the judges found. Bouterse “has never repented, and, as the de facto leader of the country, has never had a judicial inquiry into the murders.”
“The events of 37 years ago at Fort Zeelandia still cast a shadow over our country today,” chief judge Cynthia Valstein-Montnor said in her 120-page verdict. “To this day, the murders continue to divide families and friends.”
Legally, Bouterse is allowed to remain free pending a possible appeal. Many observers believe judges declined to order his jailing in order to avoid unrest and violence from his supporters. Opposition parties and victims’ relatives have called for his resignation.
Sunil Oemrawsingh, a jewelery-maker whose uncle Sugrim Oemrawsingh, a lecturer in mathematics and physics at the University of Suriname, was a victim of the December murders, called the conviction of Bouterse and more than a dozen co-conspirators a milestone in the history of Suriname.
“The law has spoken. After 37 years, the verdict is passed. The voice of 15 sons of Suriname and the call for justice have been heard,” he said.
“We are not surprised that the murderers do not want to leave the stage in silence.”
A day after the verdict, Bouterse flew home from China, where he said he received $300 million in loans for 14 projects, including a network of street security cameras, new roads and dikes.
He was greeted by thousands of supporters wearing the purple of the president’s party, many declaring that the murder conviction was the result of a plot by the Netherlands, Suriname’s colonial ruler until 1975.
“A political verdict will get a political answer,” Bouterse told the crowd, asking his supporters to remain calm.
But other National Democratic Party officials have made what many perceive to be barely veiled threats of violence if the judicial system moves to arrest Bouterse or bar him from office, as some say the law allows.
“We are still neat and tidy now,” said party vice-president Ramon Abrahams, a former member of Bouterse’s military junta. “But don’t let them challenge us to do things we don’t really want to do.”
Weissenstein contributed from Havana.