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Coup man becomes Suriname president

A former coup leader, convicted drug trafficker and accused murderer will be sworn in as Suriname's president on Thursday.

Desi Bouterse's return to power has people in ethnically diverse Suriname and abroad wondering whether it will also mean a return to the dark days of the past, when human rights were trampled and isolated Suriname was a launching pad for drugs bound for the United States and Europe.

"Has he changed? I hope so," said Henri Behr, a management consultant whose younger brother - a journalist and violinist in Suriname's symphony orchestra with two young children - was abducted and executed by Bouterse's soldiers. "I'd like to think he will be different, but perhaps that's being naive."

The immediate question for many in this thickly forested Amazon basin nation of about 500,000 people is what will happen with the trial for the "December killings." So far, there is no indication of any changes.

"The trial goes on," said Jennifer Geerlings-Simons, the speaker of parliament and a close ally of the new president. When asked to elaborate, she changed the subject.

Bouterse and nearly 20 others face charges that include murder in a case that has proceeded before a three-judge panel since November 2007.

The former dictator was scheduled to make his first appearance as a witness on Friday, but the hearing was delayed because security forces would have been spread too thin between the inauguration and trial.

In the past, Bouterse has accepted "political responsibility" for the killings but denied a direct hand in them. As president he is not required to testify and he could engineer a pardon if convicted in a case that could get him a 20-year sentence. Some fear he could interfere with the trial if testimony gets too uncomfortable.

Bouterse, 64, has loomed over Surinamese politics for three decades. He first came to power in February 1980, when he led a coup that suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament five years after Suriname gained independence from the Netherlands.

He led another coup in 1990, three years after allowing the return to civilian rule under international pressure, and remained a powerful force even after stepping down as army chief in 1992.

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