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Suriname scrutinized as ex-dictator returns

- Associated Press - Thursday, August 12, 2010

PARAMARIBO, Suriname | A former coup leader, convicted drug trafficker and accused murderer was sworn in as Suriname's president Thursday, and shop owner Sunil Oemrawsingh was so appalled he couldn't even watch the ceremony - or understand why so few of his countrymen agreed with him.

The 50-year-old has a particular reason for outrage: The new president, Desi Bouterse, is on trial for his alleged role in the abduction and summary execution of Mr. Oemrawsingh's uncle and 14 other leading citizens, all suspected enemies of the military regime, on a December night in 1982.

"I must admit, I am bitter about this," Mr. Oemrawsingh said.

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

"Has he changed? I hope so," said Henri Behr, a management consultant whose younger brother - a muckraking journalist and violinist in Suriname's symphony orchestra with two young children - was abducted and executed by Bouterse's soldiers. "I'd like to think he will be different, but perhaps that's being naive."

The immediate question for many in this thickly forested Amazon basin nation of about 500,000 people is what will happen with the trial for the "December killings." So far, there is no indication of any changes.

"The trial goes on," said Jennifer Geerlings-Simons, the speaker of parliament and a close ally of the new president's. When asked to elaborate, she changed the subject and called criticism of Bouterse propaganda.

Bouterse and nearly 20 others face charges that include murder in a case that has proceeded fitfully before a three-judge panel since November 2007.

The former dictator was scheduled to make his first appearance as a witness Friday, but the hearing was delayed - ostensibly because security forces would have been spread too thin between the inauguration and trial.

In the past, Bouterse has accepted "political responsibility" for the killings but denied a direct hand in them.

As president, he is not required to testify, and he could engineer a pardon if convicted in a case that could get him a 20-year sentence. Some fear he could interfere with the trial if testimony gets too uncomfortable, denying the families a resolution.

"We want to know who killed our loved ones and why they died," Mr. Oemrawsingh said.

Bouterse, 64, has loomed over Surinamese politics for three decades.

He first came to power in February 1980, when he led a coup that suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament five years after Suriname gained independence from the Netherlands.

He led another coup in 1990, three years after allowing the return to civilian rule under international pressure, and remained a powerful force even after stepping down as army chief in 1992.

He has long 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 in prison. He has avoided that punishment because Suriname doesn't have an extradition treaty with its former colonial ruler.

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