Suriname ex-dictator Bouterse, a convicted smuggler, sworn in with other heads of state absent

PARAMARIBO, Suriname (AP) — A former coup leader, convicted drug trafficker and accused murderer swore to uphold the country's laws at his inauguration Thursday without mentioning concerns in Suriname and abroad about his return to power — this time through the democratic process.

President Desi Bouterse pledged in a speech to fight corruption and help impoverished communities in the vast rain forest hinterland of South America's smallest nation. He also said he would strengthen the resource-dependent economy and further distance the former Dutch colony from the Netherlands while forging closer ties with other nations.

But in a ceremony that was avoided by the hemisphere's leaders, Bouterse did not address his history as Suriname's two-time dictator — a past that made his election last month by parliament uncomfortable for the international community.

The closest Bouterse came to touching on such concerns was his vow to respect the views of others.

"I want to assure you that we will never abandon the principles of consultation and cooperation or make arrogant use of our majority," he said. "The opposition is not our enemy."

Bouterse's return to power in the ethnically diverse country of 500,000 has many wondering whether it will mean a return to a dark past when human rights were trampled and isolated Suriname was a major launching pad for drugs bound for the United States and Europe.

No foreign heads of state attended Thursday's inauguration at a sports arena. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had been expected to attend but canceled at the last minute.

The U.S. — which has warned Bouterse to respect human rights and the rule of law — sent only its ambassador, who said he does not want to see any attempt to thwart the ongoing trial of Bouterse and nearly 20 others for the summary execution of political opponents in 1982.

"We have a deep interest in the rule of law and that there is an independent judiciary," Ambassador John R. Nay told The Associated Press ahead of the speech. "Any interference in the trial would be a concern."

Bouterse, 64, has loomed over Surinamese politics for three decades. He first came to power in 1980, when he led a coup that saw the constitution suspended and parliament dissolved just five years after independence. Under international pressure he allowed the return of civilian rule in 1987, only to launch a second coup in 1990. Even after stepping down as army chief in 1992, he has remained a powerful force.

He also has been dogged by allegations of corruption. Convicted of drug trafficking in absentia in 1999 in the Netherlands — prosecutors said he was the leader of the "Suri Cartel" — he was sentenced to 11 years. He avoided that punishment because Suriname doesn't have an extradition treaty with its former colonial ruler, and now he enjoys immunity as head of state during his five-year term.

"Has he changed? I hope so," said Henri Behr, whose younger brother, a journalist and violinist in Suriname's symphony orchestra, was among the 15 opposition leaders abducted and executed by soldiers in 1982. "I'd like to think he will be different, but perhaps that's being naive."

In the past, Bouterse has accepted "political responsibility" for the so-called December killings while denying a direct role in them. As president he is not required to testify, and if convicted, he could potentially engineer a pardon and avoid a 20-year sentence. Some fear he could interfere directly with the trial if testimony gets too uncomfortable.

So far there is no concrete indication that the new president will try to interfere, and his only reference to the judiciary Thursday was to a desire to reform it so that it is no longer based on the Dutch system.

Bouterse has shrugged off his conviction in the Dutch court and the criticism of his record while strengthening his political machine.

His aides declined requests for an interview, and his large security detail discouraged attempts to speak with him as he held a long meeting over drinks before the inauguration.

His son insisted the country has nothing to worry about.

"I know he will be a good president because I know what kind of man he is," Dino Bouterse said. "He will be the best."

Bouterse's party captured 40 percent of the vote and 23 seats in parliament in May with a populist campaign that featured pledges to build more houses and increase social security spending. His pledges to invigorate the economy — largely dependent on resource extraction including gold, bauxite and offshore oil — resonated in a country where formal jobs are scarce.

But it was his strategic coalition-building that got him the presidency.

To secure support in parliament, which elects the president from among its ranks in a two-thirds vote, he won over enemies such as Ronnie Brunswijk, who in the 1980s led an armed rebellion by descendants of runaway slaves and other anti-Bouterse rebels in a civil war that killed hundreds .

Brunswijk called Bouterse a murderer right after the election, then days later embraced him as a coalition partner.

"The people of Suriname say they want Mr. Bouterse, so I have to accept that," Brunswijk said. "If my grandfather's grandfather can make peace with the slave masters, then I can make peace with Mr. Bouterse."