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The May 2001 death of a labor leader, who was to be the star witness in a trial against former Suriname dictator Desi Bouterse and others accused of 15 political killings, initially appeared to rob the prosecution of key testimony needed to convict the narcotics-running one-time strongman. However, the government vowed that testimony given by the witness during a preliminary hearing would be submitted in the trial by the judge who questioned him, a move defense lawyers said they would oppose claiming they will have been denied the right to cross-examine the witness. The loss of the lone survivor of the December 8, 1982, massacre of 16 Bouterse opponents came amidst a renewed push by the Dutch to bring the retired army colonel to account for the murders and for his role in the 1982 coup. The once all-powerful dictator had already been tried and convicted by a Dutch court in absentia on charges of having introduced more than two tons of cocaine into the Netherlands between 1989 and 1997.
The Republic of Suriname achieved independence from the Netherlands in 1975, which had acquired it as a result of the Treaty of Breda with the British in 1667. Five years after independence, a military coup, which brought Bouterse to power as the head of a regime that brutally suppressed civic and political opposition, initiated a decade of military intervention in politics. In 1987, Bourterse permitted elections under a constitution providing for the directly elected, 51-seat National Assembly, which serves a five-year term and selects the state president. If the National Assembly is unable to select a president with the required two-thirds vote, a Peoples' Assembly, composed of parliament and regional and local officials, chooses the president. The New Front for Democracy and Development, a three-party coalition, handily won the 1987 elections. The military-organized National Democratic Party (NDP) won just three seats.
In 1990, the army ousted President Ramsewak Shankar, and Bouterse again took power. International pressure led to new elections in 1991. The New Front, a coalition of mainly East Indian, Creole, and Javanese parties, won a majority, although the NDP increased its share to 12. The National Assembly selected the Front's candidate, Ronald Venetiaan, as president.
Bouterse quit the army in 1992 in order to lead the NDP. The Venetiaan government took some constitutional steps to curb military influence and, in late 1995 and early 1996, purged several high-ranking pro-Bouterse military officials. The government's economic structural adjustment program led to social and labor unrest amidst an inflationary spiral and the collapse of the Surinamese currency.
During the campaign for the May 23, 1996, parliamentary elections, the NDP pledged to reverse many of the economic programs of the Venetiaan government. The four-party New Front lost seats, winning only 24, and entered into a coalition with the smaller Central Bloc, consisting of two opposition groups. The alliance proved insufficient to gain the necessary two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to return Venetiaan to office.
Bouterse's NDP, with 16 seats, joined with the Javanese-based Party of National Unity and Solidarity and dissident members of the East Indian-based United Reform Party to press for the convening in September of the constitutionally mandated 869- member People's Assembly. The deadlock was broken when Jules Wijdenbosch, a former deputy party leader under Bouterse, was elected president.
As president, Wijdenbosch steered a more independent course from Bouterse than many expected, although official protection allowed Bouterse to remain one step ahead of Dutch police as the Europeans sought his arrest. Efforts by his government to promote investment and prune public spending resulted in clashes with organized labor. At the same time, low prices for Suriname's exports and the manipulation of the currency by local drug lords created both economic chaos and disturbances on the street. In late 1998, the government oversaw the takeover of Suriname's traditionally independent high court. In May 1999, massive antigovernment protests and a continuing economic crisis forced Wijdenbosch to sack his entire 15-person cabinet. Three weeks later he announced that elections would take place a year early.
In the May 25, 2000, national elections, Venetiaan's center-right New Front, running on promises to fight corruption and speed economic development, won a resounding victory, garnering a majority of 51 National Assembly seats--three times as many as its closest rival. The legacy left by the Wijdenbosch government was daunting: a near empty treasury, 20 percent unemployment, and 100 percent inflation. The new government promised to investigate all human rights violations that had occurred in the previous two decades, including the 1982 executions of 15 of the Bouterse regime's foremost opponents. Bouterse responded by saying that if he were brought up on charges he would release secrets--"all dirty"--about leaders of the new government that he apparently had collected in the 1980s as the country's intelligence chief. In late 2000, the self-proclaimed "Jungle Man" Bouterse denied reports that he was planning a coup attempt and training an army of Amerindians deep inside the country's interior.
The death of labor leader Fred Derby, who headed the Suriname Labor Party (SPA), which forms part of Venetiaan's coalition, not only threatened to deprive the courts of an essential witness in the country's most important human rights case, but also raised questions about a possible return of massive labor unrest. The February 2001 release of 100 prisoners from the Paramaribo prison, which authorities said was done to accommodate overcrowded conditions there, created worries about rising crime in what was still one of the safest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Citizens of Suriname can change their government democratically. Political parties largely reflect the cleavages in Suriname's ethnically complex society, a factor contributing to parliamentary gridlock and, in the past, to dictator Desi Bouterse's popularity. A record 23 parties competed in the 2000 elections. Civic institutions remain weak.
The judiciary is weak, is susceptible to political influence, and suffers from ineffectiveness and a huge backlog of cases. The civilian police abuse detainees, particularly during arrests; guards mistreat prisoners; and the prisons are dangerously overcrowded.
Proximity to Colombia, connivance on the part of senior political leaders, a small number of often corrupt police patrolling vast areas, and a pool of willing recruits for criminal enterprises has meant that Suriname's drug trade continued to flourish, even after Bouterse left power. Active-duty and former army officers are involved in Suriname's two largest groups trafficking in illegal drugs. Drug-money laundering is largely conducted through representatives in the Hindu business community and frequently passes through to the Netherlands, where authorities have found it difficult to combat the transactions conducted through myriad small, tightly knit family enterprises. Bouterse himself tried to hide his hand in the drug trade and is known to use lumber, canning, shipping, and import-export firms to conduct his illegal business.
In 2000, there was an increase in narcotics-related attacks on police precincts and military posts in the eastern city of Moengo. In 2001, the locality of Redi Doti, in the central part of the country, was reported to be the site of numerous landings of drug planes at local airstrips. In February, agents seized a record 130,000 pills of the synthetic drug Ecstasy at the port in Paramaribo, through which the illegal substance is usually transshipped from the Netherlands to the United States. In recent years cooperation between the Surinamese authorities and international law enforcement organizations has improved.
In response to government plans to call Bouterse into account for the 1982 massacre --a long-standing demand of relatives of those murdered--Bouterse's allies released a letter from the former wife of the justice minister in which she tended to support claims that the minister was a bigamist, a spousal abuser, and a pedophile. In response, Bouterse, who says he has more derogatory information about other officials in his files, was sued for defamation.
The government generally respects freedom of expression. Radio is both public and private. A number of small commercial radio stations compete with the government- owned radio and television broadcasting system. State broadcast media generally offer pluralistic viewpoints.
Both indigenous and tribal peoples, the latter called Maroons--the descendants of escaped African slaves who formed autonomous communities in the rain forest in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries--reside within Suriname's borders. Indigenous people number 12,000 to 15,000 people (four percent of the population); Maroons number 40,000 to 50,000. Their rights to their lands and resources, to cultural integrity, and to the autonomous administration of their affairs are not recognized in Surinamese law. Despite numerous attempts and agreements between the state and the indigenous peoples and Maroons, all of which have been disregarded, this situation has not changed. A breakdown in the rule of law over the past five years, disputes between the executive and judiciary, and an absence of adequate domestic guarantees have forced the Maroons to seek protection of their rights in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Indigenous and Maroon land and resource rights are repeatedly violated: in particular, the state has granted large areas of lands as concessions to logging and mining interests. These concessions were made without any form of consultation with affected village authorities and without any attempt to safeguard subsistence and other rights. Approximately 30,000 small-scale Brazilian gold miners, licensed by the state, and numerous local miners are working on indigenous and Maroon lands, causing severe environmental degradation, health epidemics (malaria and sexually transmitted diseases), and social problems. The state has made no attempt to mitigate the impact of local and multinational operators on the environment, and in general Suriname lacks environmental laws and monitoring capacity. Discrimination against indigenous peoples and Maroons is widespread in law and practice and is especially pronounced in the provision of education and health services.
Constitutional guarantees of gender equality are not enforced, and the Asian Marriage Act allows parents to arrange marriages for their children without their consent. Human rights organizations function relatively freely. Several organizations specifically address violence against women, reports of the trafficking of Brazilian women for prostitution, and related issues.
Workers can join independent trade unions, and the labor movement is active in politics. Collective bargaining is legal and conducted fairly widely. Civil servants have no legal right to strike.