PARAMARIBO, Suriname--A court in Suriname on Friday convicted President Desi Bouterse of murder for the execution of 15 opponents in 1982 during an earlier term as military ruler of the South American country after he and other soldiers led a violent coup to seize power.

  The court sentenced Bouterse, who is currently in China on an official visit, to 20 years in prison.

  Bouterse has dominated much of the history of Suriname since its 1975 independence from The Netherlands. He led the country of 560,000 people through the 1980s, assumed office again in 2010 and secured re-election five years later.

  The military court on Friday 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 Paramaribo. One trade union leader survived and later gave testimony against Bouterse.

  Bouterse, who has steadfastly denied the charges, will have two weeks to appeal the decision. So far he has made no comment on his conviction.

  The Dutch government, in a statement, said it was critical that the final verdict be upheld and implemented once the appeals process is complete. “The verdict will undoubtedly prove instrumental in helping the nation move towards reconciliation,” the Foreign Ministry said.

  Critics have vilified the 74-year-old president as a dictator who has clung to power in the country, sandwiched between Guyana and French Guiana on the northeastern shoulder of South America.

  In 1999, he was convicted in absentia of drug trafficking by a court in The Netherlands though he has 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.

  Bouterse left the army in late 1992 and went into business and politics, heading the National Democratic Party (NDP) and remaining a prominent if controversial national figure.

  Bouterse and his pro-military (NDP) have consistently tried to obstruct court proceedings, which began in 2007. In 2012, the NDP-controlled National Assembly passed an amnesty law giving him immunity in 2012, but a court ruling later invalidated that. (Reporting by Ank Kuipers Writing by Angus Berwick Editing by Chris Reese and Bill Berkrot) ~Reuters ~