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AP Explains: What awaits Suriname’s convicted president?

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 – A court in the South American country of Suriname has convicted President Desi Bouterse in the 1982 killings of 15 prominent political opponents and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. The decision marks the end of a historic trial that began in 2007, the same year that Bouterse accepted “political responsibility” for the killings but insists he was not present.

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WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

A panel of three judges issued its verdict while Bouterse is in China on an official visit. However, they did not issue an arrest order for Bouterse, who could not be immediately reached for comment and whose attorney called it a “political verdict” and appealed the ruling. Meanwhile, government officials have asked for calm among the nearly 600,000 people who live in Suriname, a former Dutch colony located in South America’s northeast coast whose economy is largely based on oil and gold exports. Bouterse is scheduled to arrive in Suriname on Sunday and then leave for Cuba shortly afterward for an official visit. It is unclear if those plans remain unchanged.

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WHY DID THE TRIAL TAKE 12 YEARS?

The trial began in November 2007 and was hit by multiple setbacks, including efforts by Bouterse to end it. Shortly after he was elected president in 2010, Bouterse pushed through an amnesty law only to see it ruled unconstitutional. Then in 2016, he ordered Suriname’s attorney general to put a stop to legal proceedings in the name of national security, but a court ruled that he could not do so because the trial had already started. The murders are known as the “December killings” whose victims included well-known people such as lawyers, journalists and a university professor. At the time, the killings prompted the Dutch government to withdraw about $90 million in annual aid from Suriname.

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WHO IS DESI BOUTERSE?

He first seized power in Suriname in a 1980 bloodless coup, five years after the country gained independence from the Netherlands. He then resigned under international pressure in 1987 in a move that led to a democratic election, only to briefly seize power again in 1990. He was later elected president in a parliamentary vote in 2010 and re-elected in 2015 unopposed. In 1999, Bouterse was convicted by a court in the Netherlands in absentia of drug trafficking but avoided an 11-year prison term because he cannot be extradited under Surinamese law. In 2015, his son, Dino Bouterse, was sentenced to more than 16 years in prison in the U.S. after he admitted he offered a home base in Suriname to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Dino Bouterse had previously been picked by his father to lead a counterterrorism unit in Suriname.