The lawyer of Suriname’s former dictator Desi Bouterse called Friday for a court to acquit him of a 20-year sentence over the deaths of 15 political prisoners. Bouterse first seized power in a 1980 coup and in December 1982 allegedly rounded up 15 political opponents — including lawyers, journalists and businessmen — for execution at the Fort Zeelandia military barracks in the capital Paramaribo. The 77-year-old had already been sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2019, but he has been challenging that verdict and under Surinamese law cannot be arrested before he exhausts the appeals processes. “I ask for you to respond to the undeniable need of our society… for the trial to end as soon as possible and with an acquittal,” said his lawyer Irvin Kanhai during the appeal hearing in Paramaribo. Kanhai added it would be “wise and an act of patriotism to end” the trial against Bouterse, who has always denied involvement in the murders. Bouterse was all smiles when he left the court on Friday, greeting supporters who shook his hand and hugged him. During the previous hearing in January, Bouterse admitted in court that he had heard gunshots on the day the prisoners were killed, but insisted he did not order their execution nor was he present for the killings. He said he believed the gunshots were part of an effort to intimidate the inmates, who he claims were trying to overthrow him. Instead, Bouterse accused his number two Paul Bhagwandas — who died in 1996 — of being responsible for the Fort Zeelandia violence. The court is expected to issue its verdict in the second half of 2023. Bouterse stepped down in 1987 under international pressure, but returned to power in 1990 in a second, bloodless coup. He left office a year later but was then elected president in 2010 and remained in the post until 2020. In 1999, a court in the Netherlands, Suriname’s former colonial ruler, sentenced Bouterse to 11 years in prison in absentia for cocaine smuggling, another charge he denies.