Lawmakers approved amnesty legislation Wednesday that pardons Suriname's president for crimes committed under his earlier military dictatorship, rejecting pleas that his murder trial be allowed to run its course.
The National Assembly, which is dominated by President Desi Bouterse's political coalition, passed the bill 28-12 after 12 hours of debate that went into the night.
The amnesty ends the long-running trial for Bouterse and 24 associates on charges of abducting and murdering 15 prominent political opponents in December 1982, said Delegate Ricardo Panka, a member of the president's National Democratic Party who argued that the amnesty was necessary to unify a divided country.
"We hope that what we do today in history will be marked as the first step toward a renewed Suriname," Panka said in the closing debate.
During the debate, the governing coalition modified the legislation to include establishment of a truth commission to examine the killings involved in Bouterse's trial.
They also agreed to strip amnesty for anyone involved in the massacre of at least 39 ethnic Maroons by soldiers near the village of Moiwana in November 1986 during the South American country's civil war. Maroons are the descendants of slaves who escaped into the rugged hinterlands when Suriname was a Dutch and British colony.
Those changes weren't enough for opponents, who pleaded with their fellow lawmakers to allow the trial to play out.
"The separation of powers has been trampled," said Chandrikapersad Santokhi, an opposition delegate.
Ronny Asabina, a lawmaker who was part of the coalition that elected Bouterse president in a 2010 parliamentary vote, abstained from the vote, referring to a December 1982 victim's relative sitting in the public gallery watching the debate.
"When I look up, I see the pain in his eyes," Asabina said. "How can we so carelessly talk about the suffering of the relatives?"
Ronnie Brunswijk, leader of the Maroon party and former Bouterse foe who joined the coalition that elected him president, voted in favor of the amnesty legislation "with a lot of pain in my heart." He apologized to relatives of the victims of the December 1982 killings but said the country could not afford to have its president convicted at a trial.
"We have to move forward into the future. We need to work at the development of our country," Brunswijk said. "The only way to do that is by putting our grief aside."
Bouterse seized power in a 1980 coup. He allowed the return of civilian rule in 1987 but staged a second coup in 1990. He stepped down as military chief in 1992, but has remained a powerful force in the former Dutch colony. Lawmakers elected him president in 2010.
Members of the military killed well-known journalists, lawyers and union leaders in the December killings. Bouterse previously accepted "political responsibility" for those slayings but said he was not present when the executions took place. Witnesses in the trial have disputed that claim.
Legal proceedings against Bouterse and his associates began in November 2007 but have been repeatedly stalled by legal challenges, the unavailability of witnesses and disorganization in Suriname's legal system.
In 1999, Bouterse was convicted in absentia in a Dutch court of trafficking cocaine from Suriname to the Netherlands, but he has claimed his innocence and avoided an 11-year prison sentence because he can't be extradited under Surinamese law.