U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1997 - Mauritania
|Publisher||United States Department of State|
|Publication Date||30 January 1998|
|Cite as||United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1997 - Mauritania, 30 January 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa8027.html [accessed 24 November 2014]|
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1998.
MAURITANIAMauritania is an Islamic republic. The 1991 Constitution provides for a civilian government composed of a dominant executive branch, a Senate and National Assembly, and an independent judiciary. President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya has governed since 1984, first as head of a military junta, and since the 1992 multiparty election as head of a civilian government. On December 12, Taya was reelected President, receiving over 90 percent of the vote, running against four other candidates. The election was widely regarded as fraudulent and was boycotted by the Opposition Front (a five party coalition). Most opposition parties boycotted earlier parliamentary elections, but participated in Senate elections in 1994 and 1996; they gained only one seat. In the country's first multiparty legislative elections held in October 1996, 1 opposition and 6 independent candidates were elected to the 79-member National Assembly. The outcome of these elections was marred by fraud on all sides and pervasive government intervention, representing a backward step in the country's efforts to establish a pluralist democracy. The judiciary is subject to significant pressure from the executive through its ability to influence judges. The Government maintains order with regular armed forces, the National Guard, the Gendarmerie (a specialized corps of paramilitary police), and the police. The Ministry of Defense directs the armed forces and Gendarmerie; the Ministry of Interior directs the National Guard and police. The armed forces are responsible for national defense. The National Guard performs police functions throughout the country in areas in which city police are not present. The Gendarmerie is a paramilitary group responsible for maintenance of civil order in and outside metropolitan areas. Security forces are under the full control of the Government and responsible to it. Some members of the security forces committed human rights abuses. Mauritania, with a population of 2.4 million, has a generally market-oriented economy based on subsistence farming, herding, and a small commercial sector. Fish and iron ore are the country's main export-earners. Drought, desertification, insect infestation, rapid urbanization, extensive unemployment, pervasive poverty, and a burdensome foreign debt handicap the economy. Severe drought in 1996-1997 fueled urbanization, further straining government finances. Annual per capita national income has declined in recent years and is estimated at $503 (1996 figure). Mauritania receives foreign assistance from bilateral and multilateral sources. A small elite controls much of the country's wealth and commerce. The Government's human rights record remained poor, and problems remain in certain areas. Democratic institutions remain rudimentary and the Government circumscribes citizens' ability to change their government. Police at times used excessive force, beat or otherwise abused detainees, and used arbitrary arrest, incommunicado prearraignment detention, and illegal searches. The Government failed to bring to justice officials who commit abuses. Prison conditions are harsh and unhealthy. Pretrial detention is often very lengthy. Although the Government instituted judicial programs and training, the executive continued to exercise significant pressure on the judiciary, and in practice the right to a fair trial was restricted. The Government suspended for lack of professionalism four judges who refused to recognize the rights of former slaves. The Government broadened the scope for opposition activity and improved access to government-owned media during the election campaign, but it continued to seize and suspend some publications, and limit freedom of religion. Societal discrimination against women continued, and female genital mutilation remained a serious problem despite government efforts to halt the practice. Ethnic tensions are gradually easing, but the Halpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof ethnic groups are underrepresented in political life and some feel excluded from effective political representation. The Government continued efforts to resolve a serious abuse from the 1989-91 period, in which approximately 70,000 Mauritanians were expelled or fled, by facilitating cooperation between the Mauritanian Red Crescent Association and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to assist returnees from the refugee camps in Senegal. The Government estimates that 30,000-35,000 have returned; the UNHCR documented 25,970 total returnees to four provinces along the Senegal River, but believes that the total number of returnees is significantly higher. The Government failed to address fully another major abuse from the 1989-1991 period, when 503 members of the military, mainly from the Halpulaar ethnic group, were killed, tortured, and maimed. The Government in earlier years gave pensions to the documented widows of those killed, but not to undocumented individuals claiming to be additional wives. In 1996 the Government extended that benefit to some of those who survived the purge. Further action on alleged wives, absent documentation, appears unlikely. A 1993 amnesty law precludes legal pursuit of those responsible for the killings, and the Government does not acknowledge responsibility or wrongdoing nor has it provided honorable discharge papers to survivors or other compensation to families of those killed. A system of officially sanctioned slavery in which government and society join to force individuals to serve masters does not exist; however, slavery in the form of unofficial voluntary or forced and involuntary servitude persists. Many persons continue to live in conditions of unofficial paid or unpaid servitude and many persons still consider themselves to be slaves.