In November 2019, an all-women panel of judges presiding over a decade-long court martial in Suriname convicted Desiré Delano Bouterse, the country’s current president, for international crimes that include torture and extra-judicial executions. While legal mobilisation can legitimately be used to bring about justice, Bouterse and his supporters have used lawfare to try to prevent his trial from proceeding. The trial eventually took place and Bouterse was sentenced to 20 years in prison, while some of his co-accused were acquitted. Bouterse remains in office following the judgement, and it now remains to be seen whether legal mobilisation will triumph over ongoing attempts to use lawfare to undermine the rule of law.
The December Murders
Apart from its historic significance, the case against Bouterse and his co-accused for international crimes is a vivid illustration of the use of lawfare and legal mobilisation, both of which I have been following closely as an independent trial observer and as a researcher generally. The case concerns events that took place in December 1982, referred to by many as the so-called December Murders, at the time when Bouterse served as a commander in the Suriname army after having participated in a military coup. Various accounts of the events reported that 16 men, a combination of civilians and soldiers, all of whom were openly critical of Bouterse, were arrested in the middle of the night, brought to a military base at Fort Zeelandia (dating back to the colonial era), lined up against a wall, and shot. The bodies were brought to a local hospital for investigation, where it became evident that the men who perished had not only been executed without a trial, but had also been tortured.
A trade unionist who managed to survive the incident, Fred Derby, later filed an official statement about what had happened in 1982, which became a crucial part of the evidence presented once the court martial was established in 2007. Three years later, in 2010, despite the ongoing trial, Bouterse was elected president, a position he subsequently used to hinder the trial’s development.
At the time the court handed down its judgement in November 2019, which had been twelve years in the making, Bouterse was abroad on a trade mission in China. He returned to Suriname a few days later, perhaps after obtaining confirmation that a warrant for his arrest had not been issued, receiving a large and enthusiastic welcome at the airport from his supporters. Statements made through his lawyer questioning the legitimacy of the court’s judgement, and which undermine the rule of law, have been published in the local media.
Using lawfare to bend the law in one’s favour
As head of a trial observation mission appointed by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Geneva, I have been following this trial closely since May 2012. The case has revealed several examples of lawfare, whereby numerous law-based manoeuvres on the part of Bouterse himself, as well as his legal representative, his appointed officials, and members of his political party in the legislature have sought to undermine the rule of law in Suriname, and, more specifically, to stop the trial from taking place.
The court martial took over a decade to issue its judgement, during which period there was extensive use of lawfare to either delay or completely shut down the trial. These included legislating an Act of Amnesty (later declared by the court to be unconstitutional), ordering the prosecutor to suspend the trial, and otherwise seeking to interfere with the prosecution process through replacing the Minister of Justice. Neither of these lawfare efforts were successful and the court’s judgement stands.
The case has also revealed many examples of legal mobilisation, whereby various actors have played different roles to counter the use of lawfare and uphold the rule of law. The families of those who were murdered have continually campaigned to have Bouterse and his accomplices brought before an independent criminal tribunal. During the trial itself, international organisations such as the ICJ have called for the respect of international fair trial standards, and journalists (mostly local) have consistently sought to ensure that the case was correctly reported. In all instances, rigorous attention to the correctness of law-based arguments were a prominent feature during the trial that spanned several years; this proved to be an effective strategy, aimed at preserving the fair and equal application of justice and the rule of law in Suriname, values that are widely shared in the country following hundreds of years of colonial rule.
Reactions to the trial
While several prominent news outlets, including several in the Netherlands, as well as the Associated Press, Al Jazeera, the New York Times, and the BBC briefly reported on the judgement, the trial itself has not enjoyed much attention outside of Suriname. Inside Suriname, however, there have been extensive reactions from various actors who have been closely involved in the case, either seeking to uphold or undermine the rule of law.
Betty de Goede, a leader/founder of the Organisation for Justice and Peace (OJP) in Suriname, which represents many families of those who were killed in December 1982, observed at an inter-denominational service organised by the OJP that the rule of law held much value to the people of Suriname, and hence “the judgement (against Bouterse) cannot be ignored”. At the same service, Soeshila Baldew-Malhoe, a prominent Hindu theologian in Suriname, was more strident, declaring that while “Bouterse had no respect for the rule of law” he was warned that
… people must know that every action has consequences. Mr. Bouterse should have known then that the truth would one day come to light … it gives a good feeling to know that the rule of law is alive… everything depends on the rule of law, and when justice is given, everyone must adhere to it, regardless of the person’s social position.
Ignoring potential repercussions against them, the legal community in Suriname has been active and outspoken, including attorney Gerold Sewcharan, who represented Edgar Ritfield, one of Bouterse’s co-accused. Ritfield was one of those acquitted by the court, and characterised Bouterse as a “convicted felon”.
However, a warrant for Bouterse’s arrest has yet to be issued, and in the meantime, there have been efforts to politicise the judgement and undermine the judiciary. One of the main opposition parties, the “Democratic Alternative” (DA), published an Open Letter to the president, calling on him to resign. This has, however, not caused Bouterse to reconsider his decision to remain in power, nor has he lost credibility within the political party he chairs, the NDP, which has condemned the judgement as being “politically motivated”. Whatever happens next, it is certain that many more people, both in Suriname and abroad, will be following the outcome with considerable interest and anticipation.
About the author:
Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.