Last Updated: Friday, 25 July 2014, 11:58 GMT

Freedom in the World 2006 - Mauritania

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 19 December 2005
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2006 - Mauritania, 19 December 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473c5576c.html [accessed 25 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 4
Status: Partly Free
Population: 3,100,000
GNI/Capita: $400
Life Expectancy: 52
Religious Groups: Muslim (100 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Mixed Maur and black (40 percent), Maur (30 percent), black (30 percent)
Capital: Nouakchott

Ratings Change
Mauritania's civil liberties rating improved from 5 to 4 and the country's status improved from Not Free to Partly Free due to an enhancement of the civil liberties environment following the overthrow of President Taya.

Overview

On August 3, 2005, army officers overthrew President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya and announced the formation of a military council. Although the international community initially criticized the coup, many Mauritanians welcomed the end of Taya's two-decade-long grip on power. Led by Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, the Military Council for Justice and Democracy (MCJD) has, since taking power, freed political prisoners, encouraged the return of political exiles, opened public debate on an electoral calendar, and planned political reforms, all of which have enhanced the country's civil liberties environment.

Mauritania became an independent country in 1960 after nearly six decades of French colonial rule. A 1978 military coup ended Moktaar Ould Daddah's one-party state and was followed in 1984 by then Colonel Maaouya Ould Sid' Ahmed Taya's ouster of President Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah. Taya introduced a multiparty system in the early 1990s, but the absence of an independent election commission, harassment of independent print media, and the use of state resources to promote his candidacy devalued his presidential victories in 1992 and 1997. The main opposition parties boycotted National Assembly elections in 1992 and 1996.

More than a dozen political parties participated in the 2001 municipal and National Assembly elections. The ruling Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS) was the only party to present candidates in every constituency for the National Assembly's 81 seats, and the electoral law was modified to ban independent candidates. The PRDS won 64 assembly seats, while opposition parties won 17.

In June 2003, a failed coup attempt triggered two days of fighting in the capital. Escaped leaders of the uprising later announced the formation in exile of an armed rebellion.

Though the November 2003 presidential election included the issuance of more tamper-proof voter cards, the publication of a list of registered voters, and the use of transparent ballot boxes, numerous irregularities characterized the electoral period. Media coverage favored Taya, even though the six candidates – including the country's first female candidate and the first candidate descended from slaves – were each allocated equal time on state-run broadcast media. Civil society groups were barred from monitoring the polls, and most foreign observers declined to participate after Taya's main challenger, former president Haidallah, was briefly detained on the eve of the election. Taya was declared the winner with 67 percent of the vote.

In September 2004, the government accused Burkina Faso and Libya of backing disgruntled soldiers in another foiled coup attempt. Three opposition leaders, including Haidallah, were detained in November. Accused of plotting a coup, they were put on trial with approximately 170 military personnel in late 2004. Although most, including Haidallah, were acquitted in February 2005, four soldiers received life sentences. One of the defense lawyers dismissed the case as a political farce intended to silence the opposition and accused the government of torturing the defendants.

On August 3, 2005, Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall and fellow military officers took over the government while Taya was out of the country. Although the action was initially condemned by the international community, public support for the coup was strong within the country, including from the ruling PRDS. Soon after taking power, the Military Council for Justice and Democracy (MCJD) issued a sweeping amnesty for those charged with political crimes. Approximately 100 political prisoners, including a number of Islamists, were issued pardons and released from prison, while dozens of political activists returned from exile. In October, the MCJD published a series of reports intended to lead the country to elections within a two-year period and held a five-day public debate with representatives from political parties and civil society.

Under Taya, Mauritania had cultivated closer ties with the United States. In addition, Mauritania established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999, which the MCJD has said it intends to maintain. The MCJD government has continued to work closely with the U.S. government on programs intended to promote security and stem the growth of terrorist organizations across the region.

An incident over land rights ignited a border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal in 1989, which led to widespread ethnic violence and the exodus of approximately 65,000 black Africans to Senegal and Mali. Tensions between Mauritania and Senegal persist, though the transitional government has indicated interest in resolving the status of the approximately 27,000 refugees remaining outside the country.

Mauritania is one of the world's poorest countries, and more than half of the country depends on subsistence agriculture and livestock production. Much of the country's wealth is concentrated in the hands of the light-skinned Maur elite, who control iron ore exports and fishing. The rural population is suffering the effects of drought and locust invasions that destroyed much of the country's agricultural output, and instances of chronic malnutrition have risen in the southeastern part of the country.

Significant deposits offshore oil were discovered in 2001, and production is set to begin in 2006. This discovery is believed to have been a factor in the 2005 coup, as well as in past coup attempts.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Mauritania cannot choose their government democratically. However, the military-led MCJD, which overthrew President Maaouya Ould Sid' Ahmed Taya in 2005, has promised to complete the transition to an elected government in 2007. Since seizing power, Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall's transitional government has taken important steps to encourage a freer and more open political environment. Under the present constitution, the president is elected for a six-year term and appoints the prime minister. The bicameral legislature – dissolved by the coup – includes a 56seat Senate and an 81-seat National Assembly. Members of the National Assembly are elected by popular vote every five years. Polls for some of the Senate seats are held every two years; the remainder of the senators are elected by municipal leaders to serve six-year terms.

There were approximately 21 registered political parties at the time of the coup; since that time, additional parties have registered. The transitional government refused to register the Party for Democratic Convergence, which Taya's government had banned for allegedly harboring Islamic radicals and fugitives. The party was formed from the broad coalition of opposition forces that backed Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah for the 2003 presidential election. The MCJD has outlawed meetings characterized by religious, regional, or ethnic affiliations.

There are fears that future proceeds from oil production will benefit Mauritania's traditional elites if measures are not put in place to enforce transparency and accountability. Mauritania was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Under Taya, prepublication censorship, arrests of journalists, and seizures and bans of newspapers devalued constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression. The transitional government has promised to implement sweeping press reforms, including relaxing censorship rules and allowing for the resumption of Radio France Internationale broadcasts, which have been banned since 2000. The government does not impede internet access.

Mauritania is an Islamic state, and its citizens may not possess other religious texts or enter non-Muslim households. Among foreigners, however, non-Muslims are permitted to worship privately, and some churches operate openly. As president, Taya targeted Muslim extremism, though his critics saw attacks as politically motivated. Academic freedom is not restricted, although security forces have cracked down violently on student demonstrations in the past.

Under Taya, freedom of association was restricted and infrequent demonstrations were often violently suppressed. Since the coup, nongovernmental organizations have operated under freer circumstances. In July 2005, before the coup, the government registered the country's leading anti-slavery organization, SOS Esclaves, as well as the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights.

The constitution provides for the right of citizens to unionize and bargain for wages. All workers except members of the military and police are free to join unions. Approximately one-fourth of Mauritania's workers serve in the small formal (business) sector. The right to strike is limited by arbitration.

Mauritania's judicial system is heavily influenced by the government. Many decisions are shaped by Sharia (Islamic law), especially in family and civil matters. Prison conditions in Mauritania are harsh, and security forces suspected of human rights violations operate with impunity.

Mauritania's citizens are divided principally between three groups: the politically dominant, light-skinned Maurs of Arab and Berber extraction; black descendents of slaves, also known as Haratines or black Maurs, who have adopted the language and cultural practices of the light-skinned Maurs; and black Africans closer in cultural and linguistic practice to the peoples of neighboring Senegal and Mali. Slavery has been practiced in Mauritania for centuries, and despite passage in 2003 of a law prohibiting the practice, several thousand black Mauritanians are believed to still live in conditions of servitude. Racial and ethnic discrimination persists in all spheres of political and economic life, generally to the disadvantage of members of both the Haratine and black African classes.

Societal discrimination against women is widespread. In 2003, a female candidate competed in the presidential election for the first time, and afterward the first Haratine female was appointed to the cabinet. Under Sharia, a woman's testimony is given only half the weight of a man's. Legal protections regarding property and equality of pay are usually respected only in urban areas among the educated elite. At least one-quarter of girls undergo female genital mutilation; the government has produced intensive media and education campaigns against this practice.

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