Convicting presidents: the Suriname case

Desi Bouterse first ruled Suriname as a military dictator in the 1980s. He came back to power as a democratically-elected president from 2010 to 2020. But the dark past of the dictatorship caught up with him. He was prosecuted for crimes committed 40 years ago – the execution of 15 leading opponents in December 1982 – and convicted on appeal on December 20, 2023. “This has been an incredible political and legal soap opera,” explains Reed Brody in this podcast by our partners at Asymmetrical Haircuts. The well-known American human rights lawyer and activist, a member of the International Commission of Jurists, was the only outside observer the day Bouterse was fully convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He has arguably the most impressive record at going after heads of state responsible for international crimes. And he was very impressed by “the independence and fortitude” of Suriname’s judges. “How many countries would convict a sitting president of human rights crimes?” he asks, referring to the first conviction of Bouterse in 2019 when he was still the president. Brody tells us the remarkable story of Suriname’s quest for justice – despite the fact that Bouterse never ended up behind bars up to now. He also talks about Kissinger, double standards in international justice, and the recent use of the International Court of Justice as a human rights court.

Desi Bouterse, former president of Suriname
© Ranu Abhelakh / AFP
1 min 58Approximate reading time

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Police in Suriname have issued an arrest warrant for the convicted former President Desi Bouterse, after he failed to report to prison last week.

After years of legal wranglings the former dictator and convicted drug trafficker was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the 1982 killings of his political opponents, know as the ‘December murders’. He has since gone missing and his wife has told reporters he is not going to turn himself in to authorities.

Bouterse became the dictator of Suriname in 1980, after leading a coup to overturn the government.

In the early years of his rule he instituted evening curfews, a gag on the media and banned political parties. It’s during this period that 15 prominent opponents of Bouterse were tortured and shot, now know as the ‘December murders’.

He was later democratically elected as president from 2010 to 2020.

This week we sit down with human rights lawyer, International Commission of Jurists member and friend of the pod Reed Brody, who has been closely following the case. We look back at what happened in 1982, why Bouterse’s case and conviction took so long and what it says about Suriname’s legal system that a political leader was in fact prosecuted.

But it’s not all Suriname, we get Reed’s thought on the International Court of Justice’s recent South Africa vs Israel hearings and we touch upon another controversial figure in international law and politics, Henry Kissinger.

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This podcast has been published as part of a partnership between and Asymmetrical Haircuts, a podcast on international justice produced from The Hague by journalists Janet Anderson and Stephanie van den Berg, who retain full control and independence over the contents of the podcast.

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