Suriname president shrugs off questions about dictatorship, murder trial, drug conviction

GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AP) — Former Surinamese dictator Desi Bouterse shrugged off questions about his past during his first overseas trip as elected president, saying Monday that he will not interfere in his ongoing murder trial and dismissing a 1999 drug conviction as "almost a joke."

Bouterse traveled to Guyana to discuss the proposed construction of the first bridge over the river that divides the South American neighbors. He fielded questions at a news conference about his past as a two-time coup leader who has been charged in the deaths of 15 prominent Surinamese citizens in December 1982.

The 64-year-old president and some two dozen associates face charges including murder in a trial that has progressed slowly.

"We will not touch it. It will remain in the courts," Bouterse told reporters. "We are ready to face the truth about things when they are brought to the court in a proper sense."

In the past, he has accepted "political responsibility" for the so-called December killings while denying a direct role. As president he is not required to testify, and if convicted he could potentially engineer a pardon and avoid a 20-year sentence.

Bouterse also played down his 1999 drug conviction in the Netherlands, for which he was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Suriname has no extradition agreement with the European nation, its former colonial ruler.

He was found guilty in absentia of helping orchestrate the shipment of 474 kilograms (1,040 pounds) of cocaine from Suriname to the Netherlands in 1997, a ruling that was upheld on appeal.

"This so called drugs case is almost a joke because the conviction was on the basis of the testimony of one witness. The man is still in jail for drugs in Belgium," he said. "The sentence has no substance."

Bouterse, as he has in the past, also suggested that the case was orchestrated by the Netherlands as punishment for his work on behalf of the people of Suriname. "Once you choose to serve the interests of your people, attacks of this nature will come, even fabrications will come," he said.

Bouterse's party secured the largest bloc of seats in the National Assembly in May with about 40 percent of the vote, and he subsequently won the presidency in a parliamentary vote by forging alliances with political foes.

He and Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo said they had agreed to work toward resolving a border dispute and to build a bridge over the Corentyne River to boost trade.