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Suriname received a downward trend arrow due to an amended amnesty law that granted immunity to President Desiré Bouterse and 24 other suspects on trial for the 1982 murder of 15 political opponents.
A long-awaited verdict was close to being delivered in the trial against President Desiré Bouterse and 24 other suspects for the murder of 15 political opponents in December 1982, when the National Assembly passed legislation in April 2012 that granted amnesty to all defendants. Amid national and international protests, the “December murders” trial was adjourned in May for a constitutional examination of the amnesty legislation; the trial had yet to reconvene at year’s end.
The Republic of Suriname achieved independence from the Netherlands in 1975, after more than three centuries of colonial rule. A 1980 military coup led by Desiré 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, which were won 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, captured 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, but international pressure led to new elections in 1991. The NF again won a majority in the parliament, which chose the NF’s candidate, Ronald Venetiaan, as president. Power passed to the NDP in the 1996 elections, with Bouterse ally Jules Wijdenbosch as president, but returned to the NF and Venetiaan after early elections in 2000.
A judicial investigation was launched in 2000 into the abduction and murder of 15 political opponents who were allegedly killed by Bouterse and members of his military government in December 1982. The victims of the “December murders” included labor union leaders, attorneys, military officers, professors, businessmen, and journalists. In 2001, Fred Derby, who was to be the star witness in the trial, suffered a fatal heart attack. However, the government vowed that testimony Derby gave during a preliminary hearing would be submitted at trial.
In the 2005 elections, the NF managed to remain the single largest political force, but 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 versus 315 for the NDP’s Rabin Parmessar.
While Bouterse continued to deny direct involvement in the 1982 “December murders,” he accepted “political responsibility” and offered a public apology in March 2007. The long-awaited trial of Bouterse and 24 other suspects began in November 2007. Numerous key witnesses who had fled the country following the executions and settled in the Netherlands returned to testify in the trial.
Bouterse’s Mega Combination coalition—comprising the NDP and three smaller parties—captured 23 seats in the May 2010 legislative elections, while the NF took 14 seats. In July, Bouterse was elected president with 71 percent of the parliamentary vote, defeating NF candidate Chandrikapersad Santokhi.
International travel has occasionally proven difficult for Bouterse due to a Europol warrant for his arrest that was issued after his conviction in absentia for drug-trafficking in the Netherlands in 1999. However, he remains protected from arrest in Suriname due to the country’s lack of an extradition treaty with the Netherlands and his current position as head of state.
There have been numerous delays in the “December murders” trial. However, on April 4, 2012, just as the trial was concluding, with a final verdict expected in May, the National Assembly passed legislation in a 28–12 vote to extend the country’s 1992 amnesty law for crimes committed in defense of the state to include the period during which the December 1982 murders were committed. Immunity was therefore granted to Bouterse and the 24 other suspects. International and national protests condemned the amnesty legislation, and the Netherlands recalled its ambassador and suspended aid payments to Suriname. Questions on the constitutionality of the new amnesty law and whether a trial against the defendants who were granted immunity could proceed led to the trial’s adjournment in May. The Guyana Stabroek News reported in June that the judges involved in the case were being threatened to permanently dismiss the case. One of the challenges to the trial’s continuance is that the amnesty law’s constitutionality must be reviewed in a constitutional court, which has yet to be established. The trial was expected to resume on December 12 but was once again postponed and had yet to reconvene by year’s end.
Suriname is an electoral democracy. The 1987 constitution provides for a unicameral, 51-seat National Assembly, elected by proportional representation for 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 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.
Suriname’s political parties largely reflect the cleavages in the country’s ethnically diverse society and often form coalitions in order to gain power, including the NF, a coalition of the National Party of Suriname, and several smaller parties; the People’s Alliance for Progress; the Mega Combination coalition, led by the NDP and three smaller parties; and the A-Combination, representing the Maroons (descendants of former slaves).
Suriname has been plagued by corruption cases in recent years, and organized crime and drug networks continue to hamper governance and undermine the judicial system. The U.S. Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs reported in 2012 that the areas of government most affected by corruption are in procurement, land policy, taxation, and license issuance. Suriname was ranked 88 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruptions Perception Index.
The constitution provides for freedoms of expression and the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. Defamation and libel remain criminal offenses, with punishments ranging from fines to imprisonment. 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. 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 legally recognized, though it is very limited in practice. The government does not restrict internet access.
The authorities generally respect freedom of religion, which is protected by law and the constitution, and do not infringe on academic freedom.
The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly and association, and the government respects these rights in practice. Workers can join independent trade unions, though civil servants have no legal right to strike. Collective bargaining is legal and conducted fairly widely. The labor movement is active in politics.
The judiciary is susceptible to political influence and suffers from a significant shortage of judges and a large backlog of cases. Suriname is a signatory to the 2001 agreement establishing the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the final venue of appeal for member states of the Caribbean Community, but has yet to ratify the CCJ as its own final court of appeal. Police abuse detainees, particularly during arrests. Suriname is a major transit point for cocaine en route to Africa, Europe, and the United States, which has contributed to a rising tide of narcotics-related money laundering and organized crime. Prisons and detention centers are overcrowded and in poor condition.
Discrimination based on race or ethnicity is prohibited by law. However, the government does not recognize or offer any special protections for indigenous or native groups. Indigenous Amerindians and Maroons, who live primarily in the country’s interior, are significantly disadvantaged in the areas of socio-economic development and infrastructure, employment, education, and access to government services, and they have limited abilities to participate in the decision-making processes that affect their lands, traditions, and natural resources. Collective land rights are not acknowledged, and these populations continue to face problems due to illegal logging and mining on their land.
Constitutional guarantees of gender equality are not adequately enforced. Women are underrepresented in government; they hold less than 12 percent of seats in the National Assembly and just two of the 17 cabinet minister posts. Domestic violence remains a serious problem. While the law provides for women’s equal access to education and employment, women do not receive the same wages as men for performing the same work. Suriname serves as a source, destination, and transit country for the trafficking of men, women, and children for the purposes of forced labor and prostitution.