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Suriname court to rule on president's trial

A Suriname court martial will rule on Friday whether to end the trial of President Desi Bouterse and 24 others over the 1982 execution of political opponents, a month after they were granted amnesty.

Last month, a majority of the 51-member National Assembly in the former Dutch colony voted to grant immunity from prosecution to Bouterse and 24 others charged over the executions during Bouterse's military dictatorship.

That amnesty applies to crimes committed between 1980 and 1992. It also provides amnesty for the former military personnel who led the 1980 coup that propelled Bouterse to power.

Bouterse had been accused of having been present on December 8, 1982, at the military barracks of Fort Zeelandia, the colonial fortress in the capital where the alleged killings of 13 civilians and two military officials occurred.

He had faced the possibility of up to 20 years in prison if convicted in the trial launched five years ago in the South American country.

Elected president

Bouterse was elected president by parliament in 2010 but led a ruling military government from 1980-1987, during Suriname's civil war.

Prosecutors are meant to make their closing arguments in the slow-moving trial, but the amnesty has left the proceedings in the three-member court martial led by Judge Cynthia Valstein-Montnor in doubt.

Last month Bouterse's lawyer Irvin Kanhai asked the court martial to dismiss the charges, pursuant to the amnesty law. Some of the other suspects have also asked for the case to be dropped.

Judge Ray Elgin has meanwhile asked that the trial be adjourned - not ended - until a constitutional court, yet to be appointed, can test the amnesty law, calling it an "obstacle for the prosecution".

"The amnesty law is an encroachment on the right of survivors to seek justice. The absence of the constitutional court makes review of the amnesty law impossible and that creates a constitutional vacuum," Elgin said.

Bouterse hailed the amnesty as a "new beginning" for Suriname, but thousands of people took to the streets of the capital Paramaribo last month in protest, demanding justice for the victims and saying no one could be above the law.

The Netherlands convicted Bouterse on cocaine smuggling charges in 1999, but he has remained free as Suriname does not extradite its citizens.

Interpol has signed an order for his arrest but as president he enjoys immunity.

The International Commission of Jurists has sent an expert to Suriname to observe Friday's hearing, to assess whether it is in accordance with both international law and Suriname's constitution.

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