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The trial of opposition politician and former coup leader Desi Bouterse for the “December murders” of 15 political opponents in 1982 continued to dominate Suriname’s political debate in 2008. Meanwhile, President Ronald Venetiaan clashed with opposition leaders over economic policies and rising economic uncertainty.
The Republic of Suriname achieved independence from the Netherlands in 1975, after more than three centuries of colonial rule. In 1980, a military coup led by Desi Bouterse established a regime that brutally suppressed civic and political opposition and initiated a decade of military intervention in politics. In 1987, Bouterse permitted elections that were won handily by the center-right New Front for Democracy and Development (NF), a coalition of mainly East Indian, Creole, and Javanese parties. The National Democratic Party (NDP), organized by the military, won just three out of 51 seats in the National Assembly.
The army ousted the elected government in 1990, and Bouterse again took power in a bloodless coup. International pressure led to new elections in 1991. The NF won a majority in parliament, and the NF’s candidate, Ronald Venetiaan, was selected as president. Bouterse quit the army in 1992 in order to lead the NDP. In the May 2000 legislative elections, the NF again secured a strong majority of National Assembly seats.
In May 2001, Fred Derby—the star witness in the trial of Bouterse and others for 15 political killings committed in December 1982—suffered a fatal heart attack that initially appeared to rob the prosecution of key testimony. However, the government vowed that testimony given by Derby during a preliminary hearing would be submitted at trial.
In 2004, the NF government’s fiscal austerity program helped to stabilize prices and the economy generally, but there were signs that the policy’s negative side effects had increased voter discontent. In the 2005 elections, the NF managed to remain the single largest political force, winning 41 percent of the vote, although its failure to win a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly prevented it from electing a president. In August, a United People’s Assembly consisting of 891 members—including national, regional, and local lawmakers—gave Venetiaan his third term as president, with 560 votes for the incumbent and 315 for the NDP candidate, Rabindre Parmessar.
Former minister of public works Dewanand Balesar was put on trial for corruption in June 2006, having been stripped of his immunity by the National Assembly in 2005. He was charged with awarding more than 30 fraudulent contracts worth a total of about $36,000 to friends, family, and party loyalists, and he was thought to be the leader of a national corruption ring.In late 2008, Balesar was sentenced to jail for 2 years under charges of forgery, fraud and conspiracy to commit theft and was banned from holding a public office for a period of five years.In August 2007, police arrested two suspects in a corruption probe of the Ministry of Finance. In response, Venetiaan criticized the parliament for not putting his anticorruption bill on the agenda, but the scandal cut into his popular support.
In 2007, Suriname’s courts ordered officials to proceed with the long-delayed prosecution of Bouterse and nine other suspects for the 1982 “December murders.” Bouterse has denied any involvement in the killings, although in March 2007, he accepted political responsibility for the slayings while offering a public apology.The trial, which is regarded as a landmark test of Suriname’s judicial system, began in November and dominated political debate throughout 2008, though no conclusion was reached by year’s end. The trial has been delayed repeatedly, most recently due to the failure of several witnesses to appear in court. Bouterse and the other accused could face 20 years in jail if found guilty. Testimony is schedule to resume in April 2009.
Falling commodity prices and the onset of a global economic slowdown hampered Suriname’s growth in 2008. The economic downturn and resulting rise in economic insecurity sparked clashes between President Ronald Venetiaan and opposition leaders.
Suriname is an electoral democracy. The 1987 constitution provides for a unicameral, 51-seat National Assembly, elected by proportional representation to five-year terms. The body elects the president to five-year terms with a two-thirds majority. If it is unable to do so, a United People’s Assembly—consisting of lawmakers from the national, regional, and local levels—convenes to choose the president by a simple majority. A Council of State (Raad van State) made up of the president and representatives of major societal groupings—including labor unions, business, the military, and the legislature—has veto power over legislation deemed to violate the constitution.
Political parties largely reflect the cleavages in Suriname’s ethnically diverse society, although political-racial discord is much less acute than in neighboring Guyana. Suriname’s major parties include the NDP, the National Party Suriname (NPS), and the People’s Alliance for Progress (VVV). The current administration has support from the NF, a political alliance of which the NPS is a leading member.
While no major cases of government corruption were reported in 2008, organized crime and drug networks continue to hamper governance. Suriname was ranked 72 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. However, some media outlets engage in occasional self-censorship due to fear of reprisal from members of the former military leadership or pressure from senior government officials and others who object to critical stories about the administration. In June 2007, Suriname’s vice president personally intervened to prevent a state television program from broadcasting a discussion on China and Taiwan, prompting cries of censorship. There are two privately owned daily newspapers, De Ware Tijd and De West. A number of small commercial radio stations compete with the government-owned radio and television broadcasting systems, resulting in a generally pluralistic range of viewpoints. Public access to government information is recognized in law, although it is very limited in practice. In 2008, the trial of Desi Bouterse for the “December 15” murders was widely covered by the local press and gained some international attention. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
The authorities generally respect freedom of religion and do not infringe on academic freedom.
Freedoms of assembly and association are provided for in the constitution, and the government respects these rights in practice. Although civic institutions remain weak, human rights organizations function freely. 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.
The judiciary is susceptible to political influence and suffers from a significant shortage of judges and a large backlog of cases. The courts and prisons are seriously overburdened by the volume of people detained for narcotics trafficking. Police abuse detainees, particularly during arrests, and prison guards mistreat inmates. Military personnel generally are not subject to civilian criminal law. In 2008, Suriname continued to move forward with the process of joining the appellate jurisdiction of the new Caribbean Court of Justice, which was established to serve as a final venue of appeal for member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Suriname is a major transit point for cocaine en route to Europe, and poor law enforcement capabilities resulted in a rising tide of drug money entering the country.
Discrimination against indigenous and tribal groups is widespread, and Surinamese law offers such groups no special protection or recognition. As a result, Amerindians, who live mostly outside urban areas, have only a marginal ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and natural resources. Tribal people known as Maroons are the descendants of escaped African slaves who formed autonomous communities in the interior during the 17th and 18th centuries. Their rights to lands and resources, cultural integrity, and the autonomous administration of their affairs are not recognized in Surinamese law.
Constitutional guarantees of gender equality are not enforced. Several organizations specifically address violence against women and related issues. Despite their central role in agriculture and food production, 60 percent of rural women, particularly those in tribal communities, live below the poverty level. Trafficking in persons remains a problem, and the country lacks a comprehensive law specifically banning the practice. The U.S. State Department’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report categorized Suriname as a Tier 2 country, indicating that it had serious problems but was making efforts to meet minimum standards.