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Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - Mauritania

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1992
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - Mauritania, 1 January 1992, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca412.html [accessed 30 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.

Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

The human rights situation in Mauritania in 1991 was dominated by revelations that five to six hundred black political prisoners were executed or tortured to death by government forces between November 1990 and March 1991. The victims were among one to three thousand blacks who had been arrested during that period. In addition, security forces committed serious abuses against the black ethnic groups24 along the Senegal River Valley, including murder, torture, rape, arbitrary arrest, and confiscation and destruction of property. In April, the Mauritanian government announced its intention to move toward democracy, but its commitment must be viewed in light of its continuing campaign to repress and brutalize Mauritania's black ethnic groups, notably the Halpulaars, who are considered most actively opposed to the government.

The wave of arrests of black Mauritanians in late 1990 and early 1991 followed an alleged coup attempt by members of the black community backed, according to the authorities, by Senegal.25 Estimates of the number of blacks arrested range from one to three thousand, almost all Halpulaars from the military and civil service. Because the number of arrests exceeded the government's capacity to hold detainees in traditional detention centers, military bases and police stations in various parts of the country were turned into prisons. The detainees were held incommunicado, and most were savagely tortured, apparently in an effort to extract confessions and information about others. The torture included beatings, burns, electric shocks applied to the genitals, stripping prisoners naked and pouring cold water over them, burying prisoners in sand to their necks, and subjecting prisoners to "jaguar," a common method of torture in Mauritania involving tying a victim's hands and feet, suspending him upside down from a bar, and beating him, particularly on the soles of the feet.

In late March, the government declared an amnesty and freed hundreds of detainees. The released prisoners revealed the fate of those who had been murdered and tortured. Many who survived imprisonment are now reportedly crippled, paralyzed or maimed from the effects of torture, and some have died since their release. The government appointed a commission of inquiry in the spring, but it was composed entirely of military officers – even the pro-government Mauritanian League for Human Rights was not permitted to participate – and the commission's findings have not been made public. The possibility that a genuine effort will be made to expose the recent abuses – and thus deter their recurrence – appears dim.

In a rare show of public opposition, a series of open letters and tracts were issued in April criticizing the government's role in the arrests and killings. One petition signed by over seventy-five women – mothers, wives, sisters and nieces of some of those arrested and presumed dead – called on President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya to account for those killed. An open letter to President Taya signed by fifty prominent Mauritanians – including lawyers, doctors, professors and former ministers – denounced "the magnitude of the repression which was brought down upon the blacks, civilians and military, in the last months of 1990." The Mauritanian Workers Union published a statement calling for an independent investigation and a national conference.

Although the number of deportations of blacks has dropped considerably since the second half of 1990, black villagers and herders continue to flee Mauritania for refuge in Senegal or Mali. The military and militia stationed in the Senegal River Valley as a virtual occupation force continue to be responsible for a pattern of indiscriminate killing, torture, rape and beating. The militia are composed predominantly of Haratine (or black Moors), former black slaves who continue to identify politically and culturally with their past masters. They act with impunity, arresting arbitrarily and sometimes killing villagers, and taking their food, their livestock, their belongings and even their wives and daughters. In an open letter to the president in September, nine villagers in the Brackna region detailed the killing of a thirty-four-year old man from the village of Dar-el-Barka by a member of the National Guard and spoke of other officially sanctioned atrocities.

Meanwhile, blacks in the cities continue to suffer government repression. Beginning in late 1990 and continuing throughout 1991, hundreds of black professionals were dismissed from their jobs, former prisoners were kept under close surveillance, and a sense of fear and insecurity was pervasive in the black community. Because of the government's policy of "Arabization," blacks continue to face discrimination in education, employment, access to loans and credits, the administration of justice (in both regular and religious courts) and language, with Arabic replacing French as the official language.

Ironically, news of the deaths in detention came at a time when the Mauritanian government had announced a series of reforms. On April 16, President Taya stated that an Economic and Social Council would be appointed, a referendum on a new constitution would be held, and parliamentary elections would be scheduled. The constitutional referendum took place on July 12. According to the government, the text was approved by 97.24 percent of the population. However, black opposition activists, including those associated with the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania, had called for a boycott of the referendum, and they assert that the referendum was passed by a substantially smaller margin.

In July, new laws were promulgated on political parties and the press, although these institutions remain subject to severe restrictions. The law on political parties, for example, states that no party can engage in propaganda "in contradiction with the principles of true Islam." By December, at least eleven political parties had registered, but virtually all have close links to the ruling authorities. One, the Social Democratic Republican Party (SDRP), was formed at the end of August by President Taya. Another, the Assembly for Democracy and National Unity, was formed in August by Ahmed Ould Sidi Baba, the mayor of Atar and a relative of Taya.26 The only genuine opposition parties are reportedly the Union of Democratic Forces, which includes Beydanes, Haratines and representatives of black ethnic groups, and as of late November, the Party for Freedom, Equality and Justice, which is largely black.

Despite the announced reforms, the government has not permitted greater freedom of expression. On several occasions, peaceful demonstrators calling for an independent inquiry into the deaths in detention were violently dispersed by the police. Some of these demonstrations were staged by women related to those who had died in detention; many of the demonstrators were injured by the police. In addition, the September issue of the journal Mauritanie Demain was banned for an article reporting that black detainees had been tortured to death.

In view of the president's candidacy, the opposition has asked for an interim government so that no party will have an advantage. Their request has gone unanswered. In the meantime, the government continues to use state-owned vehicles and funds for the president's party. The government has threatened civil servants with unemployment or demotion if they do not pledge their allegiance to the SDRP. Some former political detainees, fearing for their safety and jobs, have apparently felt obliged to join the government party. The government also solicits "donations" from businessmen in the form of money, cars and buildings.

Meanwhile, relations between the governments of Mauritania and Senegal, which were severed after a series of mass deportations in 1989,27 have begun to normalize. The governments have held a series of meetings on security issues and the restoration of diplomatic relations, and the two presidents met in November during the Francophone summit in Paris. Commissions have also been created to discuss a simmering border dispute, the return of property confiscated during the related expulsions of April and May 1989, and indemnity for property that was destroyed. These issues affect Mauritanians who were forced to leave Senegal as well as black Mauritanians and Senegalese who were expelled from Mauritania.

However, the intergovernmental discussions have not addressed the return of the thousands of black Mauritanian refugees in Senegal. In 1991, official estimates put the number of Mauritanian refugees in Senegal at approximately 53,000; in Mali, they number about seven to eight thousand. The real figures are probably substantially higher, since these numbers reflect only those who have registered with the local authorities, and does not include many of the thousands who are simply living with relatives. The longer the refugees stay and compete for scarce resources, the greater the tensions with the local population.

The continuing difficulties faced by the refugees and the preconditions for their return to Mauritania are usually overlooked by the international community in the interests of promoting peace between Senegal and Mauritania. However, human rights concerns must be an important component of any eventual peace agreement, and the legitimate rights of the refugees must be addressed in that context. Many observers are concerned that the normalization of relations between the two countries will occur at the expense of the refugees. But unless there is an end to human rights abuses against the black community in Mauritania, refugees will continue to flee to neighboring countries. The refugees have made it clear that they cannot return to Mauritania until their security is assured, their citizenship is restored, and their goods, homes and land are returned.

The Right to Monitor

The only human rights organization that exists in Mauritania is the pro-government Mauritanian League for Human Rights, which rarely criticizes the government. For example, the League made no known public protest about the arrest and killing of black alleged coup plotters. The inability of independent human rights groups to function in Mauritania is an important measure of the level of governmental repression. Until the spring of 1991, political parties and opposition groups of any kind were prohibited.

Since September 1989, and most recently in June 1991, Africa Watch has requested permission from the government to send a human rights fact-finding mission to Mauritania. The Mauritanian authorities did not respond to these requests until late November 1991. In December 1991, the government finally gave Africa Watch permission to send a mission in early 1992. Africa Watch is currently working out the details of such a mission with the government to ensure that delegates would be given access throughout the country, interviews in prisons would be confidential, and Mauritanians who spoke with the Africa Watch team would not face reprisals. Africa Watch is unaware of any other human rights groups that was allowed to visit Mauritania during 1991.

U.S. Policy

In 1991, the U.S. government signaled its displeasure with the Mauritanian authorities by ending bilateral assistance and authorizing the U.S. ambassador to make private demarches about human rights concerns.

In February, as information began to surface about the deaths of hundreds of black political prisoners, the United States suspended the last of its bilateral aid to Mauritania – $125,000 for International Military and Education Training. State Department sources reported to Africa Watch that the U.S. Embassy had told the Mauritanian government that the aid was cut because of human rights violations, including the deaths in detention, but no public confirmation of this reason was ever issued.

The Bush Administration did issue a strong public condemnation of Mauritanian abuses during hearings on the Maghreb held on June 19 before the House Subcommittees on African Affairs and on Human Rights and International Organizations. Testifying for the Administration, James Bishop, senior deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, condemned "repeated human rights abuses consisting primarily of discrimination by the Maur-dominated government against non-Maur ethnic groups." He described the detention and brutal treatment of the alleged coup plotters, and the murder of five to six hundred of them. He also welcomed the Mauritanian government's pledge to democratize, but noted a number of government actions which contradicted that pledge, such as the beating of peaceful demonstrators and the arrest of democracy activists.

The State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1990, published in February 1991, contained an informative and well documented chapter on human rights abuses in Mauritania. The detail of the reporting indicates that the U.S. Embassy gathers extensive information about human rights violations throughout the country.

A "Sense of Congress" resolution passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee in May and the full Congress in July. The resolution condemned human rights abuses against black ethnic groups in Mauritania and called on the Mauritanian government to appoint an independent commission to investigate the deaths in detention. However, the Bush Administration refused to endorse the resolution, missing an opportunity to maintain public pressure on the Mauritanian government to end massive abuses.

In May, Africa Watch petitioned U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Carla Hills requesting a review of labor rights in Mauritania because of the nation's use of slave labor. Under U.S. law, Mauritania stands to lose trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) if a pattern of labor rights violations is found. The Trade Representative accepted the Africa Watch petition on August 21 and is currently considering the matter. A decision about whether Mauritania's GSP benefits should be terminated is expected in May 1992.

French Policy

France, as the former colonial power and one of Mauritania's principal sources of foreign aid, has more influence in Mauritania than any other Western country. French bilateral aid to Mauritania in 199028 was approximately three hundred million francs (roughly fifty-two million dollars), which included food aid and some 250 technical advisors in the fields of agriculture, health and education. France also provides a smaller amount of technical military cooperation to Mauritania. The prominence of the French role in Mauritania has been particularly enhanced since the Gulf War, because financial assistance from the Gulf states, notably Kuwait, dried up after Mauritania supported Iraq.

The releases of political prisoners in March and the announcement of reforms in April appears to have been due in large part to French pressure. The March amnesty was declared just after a trip to Nouakchott by Michel Vauzelle, president of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the French National Assembly. President Taya's April speech on democratization was made several days after Roland Dumas, the French foreign minister, visited Mauritania. Dumas's visit also prompted the Mauritanian government's promise of parliamentary elections and its appointment of a commission of inquiry into the recent prison deaths. The French, however, made no public statements during these visits.

The Work of Africa Watch

Africa Watch's work on Mauritania continues to focus on abuses against black ethnic groups. In February and March, Africa Watch sent a mission to Senegal to gather information on the persecution of blacks in Mauritania. Africa Watch visited Dakar and the Senegal River Valley, which borders Mauritania and houses most Mauritanian refugees in Senegal. The 1991 investigation was a follow-up to a prior mission to Senegal in May and June 1990. The information collected will be compiled in a major report on the persecution of black ethnic groups to be published in early 1992.

During 1991, Africa Watch tried to focus attention of donor governments and agencies on human rights abuses in Mauritania. We urged the United States, France and the European Community to pressure the Mauritanian government on human rights grounds. In May, Africa Watch published a newsletter, "More Than 200 Black Political Detainees Executed or Tortured to Death," describing the arrests and conditions of detention. The document included a preliminary list of 173 blacks who died in detention.

In June, Africa Watch and Middle East Watch testified before the House Subcommittees on African Affairs and on Human Rights and International Organizations about human rights in the Maghreb. Much of the testimony focused on gross violations of human rights in Mauritania, describing the recent history of persecution against black ethnic groups including the deaths in detention, slavery, and the use of "Arabization" to marginalize black communities.

Africa Watch also worked to promote the "Sense of Congress" resolution noted above, and filed the above-mentioned petition with USTR Hills challenging labor rights practices in Mauritania.

Africa Watch published articles on human rights in Mauritania in the April 1-7 edition of West Africa, the May issue of Africa Events, the July 8 issue of The Nation, the July 8-14 edition of West Africa, and the July-August issue of Africa Report.


The four black ethnic groups are the Halpulaar, Soninké, Wolof and Bambara. Although exact population figures are not known because the results of the most recent census, in 1988, were never published, these four groups are believed to make up about thirty percent of the population. Another thirty to forty percent are Haratines, also known as black Moors, the former black slaves of the politically dominant Arab-Berber Beydanes who continue to identify politically and culturally with their former masters. The remainder of the population is Beydane.

Senegal denied participation in the coup attempt, and it is impossible to take the Mauritanian government's claim of a coup attempt seriously. First, the charges were announced only in December, even though the arrests began in mid-October. Second, the likelihood that black soldiers would attempt a coup must be considered small in light of the dramatic decrease in the number of black army officers and soldiers following an alleged coup attempt by black army officers in October 1987 as well as the expulsion of many black members of the army, the police force, the National Guard, various security services and the customs service in 1989 and 1990. Finally, and perhaps most important, the arrests took place in the midst of a municipal electoral campaign, at a time when the authorities were clearly nervous that one of the candidates for mayor of Nouakchott, the capital, was galvanizing the black and Haratine populations against the ruling Beydanes.

Some of the other political parties are: The New Mauritanian Party, headed by Moulaye Zeyd, the former mayor of Zourate; the People's Social and Democratic Union, headed by Mohammed Mahmoud Ould Mah, the former mayor of Nouakchott; and the Party for Democratic Justice, headed by Mohammed Abdoullahi Ould El Bane, a Beydane professor.

A border dispute between Senegal and Mauritania in April 1989 led to mass expulsions of black Mauritanians to Senegal and Mauritanians back from Senegal. Taking advantage of an agreement between the two countries to repatriate each other's citizens, the Mauritanian authorities launched a campaign to deport thousands of blacks, especially those in the south near the economically important Senegal River Valley.

Figures not available for 1991.

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