Suriname‘s President Desi Bouterse has been been sentenced to 20 years in prison for the execution of 15 political opponents.
The decision by a panel of three judges on Friday marked the end of an historic trial that began in November 2007, although it was not immediately clear what happens next.
The judges did not issue an arrest order, and Bouterse’s attorney, Irvin Kanhai, immediately appealed against the decision, calling it a “political verdict”.
Bouterse led the South American country through the 1980s as head of a military government, then assumed office again in 2010 and secured re-election five years later.
The court ruled that Bouterse had overseen an operation in which soldiers under his command abducted 16 leading government critics – including lawyers, journalists and university teachers – from their homes and killed 15 of them at a colonial fortress in the capital Paramaribo in 1982.
Bouterse, 74, is currently on an official trip in China and gave no immediate comment. The leader was expected to return to Suriname on Saturday or Sunday, skipping a planned trip to Cuba, the vice president of his National Democratic Party (NDP) told local newspaper De Ware Tijd.
Shortly after the court issued its decision, the government asked Suriname’s more than half a million inhabitants to remain calm.
“Democracy remains of paramount importance,” officials said in a statement.
Angelic del Castillo, head of the opposition Democratic Alternative ’91 party, said Bouterse had “disqualified himself” from remaining Suriname’s leader and demanded he immediately resign.
“This is in the interest of the dignity of the office and of our nation,” del Castillo said in a statement.
The court on Friday evening also convicted six other former military officers, including the country’s current consul to neighbouring French Guiana, of murder for their part in the episode, including forcibly removing victims from their homes at night or participating in the shooting.
In 1999, Bouterse was also convicted in absentia of drug trafficking by a court in the Netherlands, though he denied any wrongdoing. A Suriname judge in 2005 convicted Bouterse’s son, Dino, of leading a gang that trafficked in cocaine, illegal arms and stolen luxury cars.
As a junior military officer, Bouterse took part in the 1980 coup against Suriname‘s first prime minister, Henck Arron, and immediately promoted himself to army chief-of-staff, becoming effective ruler of the government.
He stepped down under international pressure in 1987, then briefly seized power again in 1990. He was then elected president in a parliamentary vote in 2010 and secured re-election five years later.
In a joint statement, the diplomatic missions of the Netherlands, United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Germany and France to Suriname said it was “critical” that the verdicts be “implemented and upheld in accordance with the rule of law”.
Bouterse and the NDP have consistently tried to obstruct court proceedings. In 2012, the National Assembly passed an amnesty law giving him immunity but that was later invalidated by a court ruling.