PARAMARIBO, Suriname – The long-stalled murder trial of Suriname President Desi Bouterse for the deaths of political opponents in 1982 briefly reconvened Friday — only to be put on hold again until at least May.
Prosecutor Roy Elgin told the court that there were no legal bases to proceed with the trial of Bouterse and 25 co-defendants despite a November ruling to the contrary by the high court. He said that an amnesty law passed in 2012 remains in force and could only be revoked by parliament or by convening a constitutional court.
"The law is hard, but it is the law," Elgin said.
The presiding judge, Cynthia Valstein-Montnor, said she would rule on the argument on May 6.
Bouterse and 25 allies from his time as a military dictator in the 1980s avoided trial until November 2007 on charges stemming from the abduction and summary execution of 15 prominent political opponents, an event known locally as the "December killings" that stunned the lightly populated nation on the northern tip of South America.
The former strongman returned to power in 2010 when he was elected president by parliament. Two years later, lawmakers passed an amnesty law and proceedings were put on hold in a decision that outraged human rights activists.
Bouterse, who was re-elected by parliament last year, has accepted what he called "political responsibility" for the killings by the military of the well-known journalists, lawyers and union leaders but said he was not present when the executions took place. Witnesses in the trial have disputed that claim. In November, the Court of Justice agreed with a challenge to the applicability of the amnesty law filed by relatives of the slain opponents and it directed the attorney general to resume proceedings.
Hugo Essed, a lawyer for the families of the victims, said there was no legal basis to halt the case once again. "The highest court of the land decided the persecutor has to continue with the trial against Bouterse," he said. "You cannot simply ignore that. We have already criticized the prosecutor in the past, and his remarks today bring him further into disrepute."
Bouterse did not attend the hearing Friday. His lawyer, Irvin Kanhai, told the judge that the president was too busy with his official duties. Later, he defended the prosecutor's position, telling reporters that under Surinamese law the case had been formally suspended and cannot be resumed. "There are no legal grounds for the prosecutor to continue the case against my client."