President Desi Bouterse said he was victim of a “political game” when he returned to Suriname on Sunday after a court found him guilty of murder in absentia for the 1982 execution of 15 activists in the former Dutch colony.
The court on Friday sentenced Bouterse, who was on an official visit to China, to 20 years in prison for the murder of 15 adversaries who spoke out against his seizure of power in a February 1980 coup.
Bouterse, who has dominated Suriname’s politics in recent decades, has denied the charges. He is able to appeal the decision.
The former military officer returned to Suriname on Sunday before dawn and was greeted by a crowd of some 1,500 supporters dressed in purple, the colour of his National Democratic Party.
Many shouted “We want Bouta!”, his nickname, as security struggled to control them.
“The political game is played openly, so it was clear what was going to happen,” said Bouterse, 74, during a news conference at a nearby resort. “We will stay within the law and regulations. Politics needs to be answered with politics.”
He promised to consult with leaders of his National Democratic Party. Opposition parties have called for Bouterse to step down.
The military tribunal that issued the ruling has not served an arrest warrant and it remains unclear whether Bouterse will serve any jail time.
As a junior military officer, Bouterse took part in the 1980 coup against Suriname’s first prime minister, Henck Arron, just five years after independence from the Netherlands. He immediately promoted himself to army chief-of-staff, becoming effective ruler of the nation of 560,000 people.
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.