PARAMARIBO, Suriname – A prosecutor on Wednesday recommended a 20-year prison sentence for President Desi Bouterse for his role in the December 1982 killing of 15 prominent political opponents in this South American country.
Prosecutor Roy Elgin told a court in a summation of evidence from a trial that has dragged on for years that there is sufficient proof that Bouterse was present when troops under his command summarily executed opponents of his then-military dictatorship.
The executions of union leaders, activists and journalists inside a colonial fort in the capital city of Paramaribo are referred to in Suriname as the "December killings," and are considered one of the most significant political events in the country's modern history.
Bouterse has previously accepted "political responsibility" for the killings but insists he was not present.
Elgin said testimony from a union leader who was spared execution and other evidence proves Bouterse was there.
"As military leader, he was not only present during the summary executions, he also decided the fate of the victims," Elgin told the three-judge panel. "He behaved like a judge, and robbed his victims of their most valuable possession, their life."
The court has not yet set a date for when it will rule on whether to accept the prosecutor's findings but it is not likely for several months at least. The prosecutor's summation must still be read for each of more than 20 other defendants also charged in the case.
Bouterse, who was not in the courtroom, was the military leader of Suriname from 1980 to 1987. He was elected president in a parliamentary vote in 2010 and re-elected in 2015. He has not yet commented on the recommended sentence but is scheduled to speak Thursday at a ceremony to commemorate victims of political violence in Suriname.
A spokesman for the president, Clif Limburg, dismissed the case as "nothing but a political trial" on his daily talk radio show. Bouterse lawyer Irvin Kanhai criticized it to reporters outside the court.
"I am not impressed by the so-called evidence presented by the prosecutor, not impressed at all," Kanhai said. "You will eventually see how we will deal with this," he added.
Hugo Essed, a lawyer for relatives of the victims, said the families were hopeful after so many years of delay.
"We are, of course, very happy the prosecutor has debunked all the stories of Bouterse, who has always persisted he is innocent," Essed said. "We expect nothing but Bouterse actually getting convicted for a 20-year prison sentence, in a few months from now."
The trial has been under way since November 2007. Bouterse pushed through an amnesty law shortly after he was elected but it was ruled unconstitutional. Last year, he directed the country's attorney general to immediately halt the legal proceedings against him in the interests of national security but the court ruled he could not do so since proceedings had already started.
Bouterse was convicted by a court in the Netherlands in absentia of drug trafficking in 1999 but cannot be extradited under Surinamese law.