Something is rotten in Paramaribo.
This past August, Dino Bouterse, son of the president of Suriname, was extradited from Panama to the United States on charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization.
Dino Bouterse allegedly collected $2 million to provide a base, passports, and weapons for Hezbollah fighters as they planned attacks on the U.S. and the Netherlands, Suriname’s former colonizer. With charges of attempted drug and weapons smuggling already on his record, Bouterse could face life in prison plus 15 years if convicted.
Bouterse’s lawyers stated that Dino “is not, and never has been a supporter of any terrorist organization and never intended to render aid to such an organization.” Yet the United States alleges that Bouterse met with undercover agents acting as Hezbollah operatives in Greece to discuss hosting between 30 and 60 militants in Suriname.
This is not Bouterse’s first run-in with the law: he served 3 years out of an 8-year sentence for trafficking drugs, weapons, and stolen luxury cars. He was released early due to good behavior and was then named director of Suriname’s Counter Terrorism Unit. The Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, the office prosecuting Bouterse, released a statement claiming Bouterse used his position at the head of the CTU to engage with Hezbollah.
In light of these allegations, President Desi Bouterse (pictured above) has tried to distance himself from his son, saying that he was “responsible for his own actions.” The president’s opponents in Parliament have called for him to step down.
President Bouterse himself has played a very controversial role in Surinamese politics. Bouterse rose to power as a sergeant in the army after leading a successful coup in 1980 and soon after eliminated all opposition in a series of brutal murders in December 1982. He ruled until 1987 when elections were instated. Yet because he claimed to be a revolutionary overthrowing oppressive Dutch rule, he was not unpopular. Bouterse left office when the country returned to civilian rule but maintained an active role in politics and continued to lead his party—the National Democratic Party. As the statute of limitations for most of his crimes was reached at the turn of the century, he was not placed on trial for most of his crimes. In 2008, relatives of Bouterse’s victims brought charges just in time and his trial began.
Nearly five years after the start of Bouterse’s trial, the Surinamese parliament passed a controversial measure granting him immunity from prosecution for his crimes. Melvin Bouva, a member of Bouterse’s party and an author of the bill, said:
“We are young and we want stability in the country. And besides, we were not around when the December murders happened. The outcome of the trial could plunge us into a deep adventure. It will be a disaster if the president cannot govern the country. We want to know the truth too, but we can do that without Bouterse going to prison. Amnesty is the best solution for the country.”
In a show of loyalty, Parliament elected Bouterse as president in 2010 while he was still on trial, and the trial has since been put on hold until a constitutional court can review the amnesty decision. Given that there is currently no constitutional court in Suriname and that Bouterse himself would appoint the justices of this court, it is unlikely that his trial will ever resume.
Many people who once hailed Bouterse as a hero have taken to the streets of Paramaribo to protest the declaration of amnesty. The Netherlands, where Bouterse still has an outstanding 15-year prison sentence to serve after he was convicted of drug trafficking in absentia, suspended its €20 million in aid.
Yet these events have done very little to disrupt US relations with Suriname and there are currently no known al-Qaeda or Hezbollah cells operating out of South America. In fact, in a gesture embodying the holiday spirit (and perhaps with a nod to continued US-Suriname diplomatic ties), Dino Bouterse will be offered a Thanksgiving turkey in jail.