Stalled murder trial back on for president of Suriname

January 31, 2017
FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2015 file photo, Suriname President Desire Delano Bouterse observes a military parade, after being sworn in for his second term, in Paramaribo, Suriname. A military court in Suriname on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, ordered the president to resume his long-stalled murder trial in the killing of political opponents under his dictatorship in 1982. (AP Photo/Ertugrul Kilic, File)

PARAMARIBO, Suriname (AP) — A military court on Monday ordered a resumption of the long-stalled murder trial of President Desi Bouterse in the killing of political opponents under his dictatorship in 1982.

The court ruled the president breached his legal authority last year when he ordered a halt to the proceedings.

Bouterse and 25 co-defendants are accused of rounding up 15 prominent opponents and executing them inside a colonial fortress in the capital of the South American country.

Bouterse was elected president in a parliamentary vote in 2010 and re-elected in 2015. He pushed an amnesty law through parliament that would have ended his trial but that was ruled unconstitutional.

In June, he directed the country’s attorney general to immediately halt the legal proceedings against him, invoking an article of the constitution that allows the president to issue such an order in the interests of national security.

But the presiding judge in the military court, Cynthia Valstein-Montnor, ruled the prosecution does not have the authority to withdraw a complaint after a trial has started.

She scheduled the next session of the court for Feb. 9. Prosecutors are expected at that point to disclose the sentence they are seeking.

The decision was welcomed by relatives of the victims of what are known in Suriname as the December killings, whose victims included some of the most prominent citizens of the small country.

“Obviously we are delighted with the decision of the judges,” said Sunil Oemrawsingh, a nephew of one of the victims. “On the other hand, we must not be naive. The suspects are willing to go very far to protect their interests, even if that would mean they have to use violence. The coming days the relatives of the victims will have to be very careful.”

Irvin Kanhai, a lawyer for Bouterse, said the ruling of the Military Court did not surprise him and said he did not know whether the president would again seek to stop the process again. “I am a lawyer, not a member of the government,” he said. “I have no idea what the government will do now. ”

The trial has been underway since November 2007. Bouterse has accepted what he calls “political responsibility” for the military’s killing of the 15 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.