Mauritanian human rights defenders who speak out against persistent practice of slavery and discrimination in the country have faced arbitrary arrest, torture, detention in remote prisons and the systematic banning of their gatherings, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.
‘A sword hanging over our heads’: The repression of activists speaking out against discrimination and slavery in Mauritania documents the growing repression of individuals and organizations who dare to denounce slavery and discrimination, as well as the government’s denial of the problem.
“It is a disgraceful disregard for human rights that despite abolishing slavery in law nearly 40 years ago, the Mauritanian authorities continue not only to tolerate this practice but to repress those who speak out against it,” said Alioune Tine, Amnesty International West and Central Africa Director.
“With major elections on the horizon this year and next, the risk of social unrest is high unless all voices – even critical ones - are respected. The authorities must stop this assault against human rights defenders and take concrete and meaningful measures to put an end to slavery and discrimination.”
The report details the different tactics used by the Mauritanian authorities to silence human rights defenders and activists, including prohibiting peaceful demonstrations, using excessive force against protesters, outlawing activist groups and interfering with their activities.
In 2016, international anti-slavery groups estimated that the number of people living in slavery in Mauritania could be as high as 43,000 -approximately one per cent of the total population of the country.
Amnesty International has found that police, prosecutors and the judiciary failed to respond adequately to reported cases of exploitation, to identify victims or punish suspected perpetrators. In 2016, only two individuals were sentenced by the country’s anti-slavery courts, despite them receiving 47 cases for investigation involving 53 suspects.
Discriminatory practices affect Haratines and Afro-Mauritanians
The report reveals that discriminatory practices particularly affect members of the Haratines and Afro-Mauritanian communities. This includes severe under-representation in leadership positions and obstacles to registration which among others limit their access to essential services.
The right to protest is also being suppressed in Mauritania, with 20 human rights groups informing Amnesty International that the authorities had banned or dispersed their peaceful assemblies in recent years – sometimes using excessive force causing serious injuries, ranging from fractured limbs to head trauma.
For example, in April 2017, a march of about 100 young activists calling for education policies to be more inclusive was violently dispersed in the capital Nouakchott, and 26 activists were arrested.
On 28 November 2017, members of the Widows and Orphans Association were beaten by security forces after 15 of them were arrested during a peaceful protest. One of the orphans required hospital treatment after being punched in the head.
It is not only protests that are banned; entire organizations combating slavery and discrimination are too. The report documents the cases of more than 43 groups who have never received authorization to operate, despite repeated requests. These include the youth and pro-democracy association Kavana (meaning ‘Enough’) and the anti-slavery movement Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA).
Yacoub Ahmed Lemrabet, president of Kavana, told Amnesty International:
“Not being recognized as an ‘authorized association’ is like having a sword hanging over our head. We carry on with our activities but we know that at any point the authorities can shut us down and put us in jail.”
‘Welcome to Guantanamo’ - Arbitrary Arrests in Mauritania
Since 2014, Amnesty international has documented 168 cases in which human rights defenders have been arbitrarily arrested, including at least 17 cases where they were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.
The 25th February Movement, a youth and pro-democracy group, has seen 23 of its members arrested since 2014, while 63 members of anti-slavery group IRA have been arrested in the same period.
At least 15 IRA members have been sentenced to prison terms in unfair trials and some were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment in order to extract “confessions”.
Amadou Tijane Diop, an anti-slavery activist detained in 2016, told Amnesty International in June 2017:
“The police handcuffed and blindfolded me. I had no idea where they were taking me. When we arrived, one officer said: ‘Welcome to Guantanamo.’ … Before I was brought for interrogation, a guard told me: ‘Just tell them what they want to hear. You know we have what it takes to make you talk.’’
Smear campaignsVicious smear campaigns, assaults and death threats are carried out with complete impunity against human rights defenders, who are often labelled as traitors, criminals, foreign agents, racists, apostates or politicians. Such intimidation have come from the highest levels of the state and religious groups and during international meetings in Europe.
For example, human rights defender Mekfoula Brahim has been the target of a sustained and co-ordinated smear campaign on social media and has been receiving death threats after she called for blogger Mohamed Mkhaïtir's death sentence to be quashed.
“Campaigns to portray human rights defenders as threats to national security or cultural values put activists in danger and has a destructive effect on freedom of expression,” said Alioune Tine.
“The Mauritanian authorities should show that all critical voices are respected by releasing all those arrested simply for speaking out against discrimination and recognizing the work of human rights defenders.”
Published on Amnesty International on March 21, 2018
The report is available below
Mauritanian authorities have detained an opposition leader for two months on vague corruption charges, Human Rights Watch said today. They should free the opposition leader, Mohamed Ould Ghadda, or grant him a prompt and fair trial, if they have sufficient evidence to try him for a recognizable criminal offense.
Mauritanian officials arrested Ghadda on August 10, 2017, five days after Mauritanians voted in a referendum to dissolve the country’s Senate, of which Ghadda was a member. Ghadda was an outspoken opponent of that vote, which the opposition characterized as a move by President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to consolidate power and possibly prepare constitutional changes that would permit him to serve beyond his current, second term in office.
“The longer Mohamed Ould Ghadda is held without the court clarifying the charges against him, the more this case appears to be about silencing opposition to the president rather than about delivering justice,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
A judge is investigating Ghadda on charges of corruption of a state public servant under the 2016 Law to Combat Corruption, article 3, his lawyer, Ahmed Salem Bouhoubeyni, told Human Rights Watch. The Law to Combat Corruption provides a prison sentence from 10 to 20 years for an elected official who offers or accepts a bribe. Ghadda’s only appearance in court so far, on August 31, was a preliminary one, at which the judge did not question him on the substance of the case. He has been interrogated about financial support he allegedly received from Mohamed Bouamatou, a Mauritanian pro-opposition businessman and philanthropist.
Three weeks after Ghadda’s arrest, authorities also summoned and interrogated 12 other senators, four independent journalists, and two union leaders. Many of the questions concerned alleged financing by Bouamatou, said reports in Le Courrier du Nord, Radio France International, and Le 360 Afrique. The courts placed them all under judicial supervision pending possible charges, requiring them to check in weekly with the police and preventing them from leaving the country.
As part of the same corruption investigation, a Mauritanian prosecutor on September 1 issued an international arrest warrant for corruption against Bouamatou and one of his business associates, Mohamed Ould Debbagh, who are both currently exiled in Morocco.
Ghadda remained in pre-arraignment detention for three weeks before seeing a judge for the first time, Bouhoubeyni told Human Rights Watch. Ghadda had no access to his lawyer for the first 10 days. Mauritania’s penal code requires releasing anyone arrested from police custody within 48 hours, and in cases brought under the Law to Combat Corruption, 48 hours renewable for the same period of time up to three times with the prosecutor general’s written authorization.
The judge at the August 31 hearing decided to move forward with the corruption investigation, Bouhoubeyni told Human Rights Watch. Since then, the judge has not summoned Ghadda again for questioning, in spite of the penal code requirements for a prompt trial when a defendant is held in pretrial detention.
On September 16, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Mauritanian Minister of Justice Brahim Ould Daddah to raise concerns about Ghadda’s detention, but Mauritanian authorities did not to respond to Human Rights Watch inquiries.
Early in 2017, Abdel Aziz proposed constitutional amendments that would dissolve the Senate and establish regional councils, along with other symbolic measures. The National Assembly, the lower house of Mauritania’s bicameral parliament, approved the amendments. But when the Senate – the upper house – rejected them last March, with Ghadda leading the opposition, Abdel Aziz announced that he would submit the defeated reforms to a national referendum. At the time, Ghadda headed a Senate committee that monitored government contracts.
Abdel Aziz defended the initiative, calling the Senate “useless and too costly” and claiming that replacing it with “more local” forms of law-making would improve governance.
Much of the political opposition denounced the proposed move as a step toward eliminating presidential term limits in the constitution before the next presidential election in 2019.
During the two weeks before the referendum, security forces in the capital Nouakchott, repeatedly used force against peaceful protesters, who gathered in various locations each afternoon to protest holding the referendum, four protesters told Human Rights Watch in separate phone interviews. Ghadda was among those injured when security forces cleared protests on July 27.
“The marches were very peaceful,” said Ahmed Jedou, a Mauritanian journalist who participated in the protests. “Police responded violently to people simply shouting slogans against the constitutional referendum and governmental corruption.”
On August 3, in his last speech two days before the referendum, Abdel Aziz accused senators opposed to his proposed reforms of being “traitors” who “take money from businessmen to undermine the institutions of the country.”
Meanwhile, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concern about the handling of the demonstrations. “The authorities reportedly did not respond to the majority of requests for authorization for the protests and actively dispersed gatherings,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN agency.
“In several cases, protest leaders were reportedly beaten up and a number of them were arrested.”
The referendum was approved by 85 percent of those voting, with a participation rate of 53.73 percent of eligible voters, according to official figures.
Under Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Mauritania in 2004, anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge, and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time, or to release. Article 14 of the Covenant provides that anyone facing a criminal charge is entitled to a hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal without undue delay. The African Commission’s Principles and Guidelines on the right to a fair trial and legal assistance in Africa sets similar standards for a fair and speedy trial.
“The longer the jailing of Ghadda continues without a judicial process that is fair and transparent, the more his case appears to be part of a power play to blunt opposition to the president,” Whitson said.
Published on October 5, 2017