Head of state: General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (replaced Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi in August)
Head of government: Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdaf (replaced Yahya Ould Mohamed El Waghef in August, who replaced Zeine Ould Zeidane in May)
Death penalty: abolitionist in practice
Population: 3.2 million
Life expectancy: 63.2 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 98/85 per 1,000
Adult literacy: 51.2 per cent

A military coup overturned the elected government, and several former officials were held as prisoners of conscience. Torture and other ill-treatment were reported throughout the year. Suspected Islamist activists were held in prolonged incommunicado detention under counter-terror measures. Hundreds of migrants were detained and expelled with no opportunity to challenge the legality of their detention or collective expulsion. Prison conditions were harsh.


In August, a group of army officers overthrew and arrested President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, in office since the presidential election of March 2007, which had restored civilian government to the country.

The August 2008 coup was preceded by disagreements between the President and some army officers, especially regarding the dismissal of the Chief of Staff. A High State Council comprising 11 members of the armed forces was established by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who led the coup. The High State Council promised to organize elections as soon as possible.

The international community called for the release of the President and a return to constitutional order. The EU and the USA froze their non-humanitarian aid and the AU suspended Mauritania. A number of peaceful demonstrations called for the release of the President and the restoration of constitutional order. Following a decision in September by the governor of the capital Nouakchott to suspend all political demonstrations, some demonstrations were forcibly broken up or prevented.

Arbitrary detention

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention expressed concern about the lack of effective control by the prosecutor over police action and over the situation of individuals in custody. Many detainees told the Working Group that abuse of power, corruption, torture and other ill-treatment were common in detention and that often detainees were coerced into confessions. Complaints against the police were reportedly investigated only in exceptional cases.

Counter-terror and security – incommunicado detention

Scores of people, mostly suspected Islamist activists, were arrested in the context of counter-terror measures. Among them were the men charged with killing four French tourists in Aleg in December 2007, and those charged with attacking the Israeli Embassy in Nouakchott in February. Others were suspected of having participated directly or indirectly in terrorist acts. Among those arrested were relatives of suspected Islamist activists. Some were released within two weeks, but at the end of 2008 many were still held without trial.

Many detainees, including those accused of belonging to al-Qa'ida in Maghreb, were detained incommunicado for prolonged periods, exceeding the 15 days allowed by law. Security forces and prison officers refused to allow some judicially authorized family visits.

  • The mother of an alleged Islamist activist, arrested at his home on 30 April and detained at the Army Chief of Staff headquarters, was refused access to her son despite obtaining authorization for a visit from a magistrate.

Prisoners of conscience

Following the August coup, President Sidi, the Prime Minister Yahya Ould Mohamed El Waghef, the Interior Minister and two other senior officials were arrested. Some were released a few days later. President Sidi was detained until 13 November when he was transferred to his home village of Lemdem and held under house arrest. He was finally released on 22 December. In September, Isselmou Ould Abdelkhader, a former Minister of Health, was arrested for criticizing the August coup.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Torture and other ill-treatment continued to be reported throughout 2008 in a wide variety of detention centres including the first police brigade and private villas in Nouakchott. Common methods included kicking, beating, electric shocks, cigarette burns, sexual violence, suspension by the arms, shackling in painful positions, and deprivation of sleep and food.

Restricted access to the outside world and failure to establish effective mechanisms for complaint and investigation continued to be key factors allowing torture to persist.

Allegations of torture and other ill-treatment were recorded from scores of people including detainees at Dar Naïm prison. Some detainees, especially alleged Islamist activists, reported that they had been tortured with electric shocks. One said that he was given electric shocks on the soles of his feet. Another said that he was blindfolded, his hands and feet were tied behind his back and he was given electric shocks. A third told Amnesty International that the security forces urinated on him and inserted a truncheon in his anus.

Prison conditions

Hundreds of detainees continued to be held in overcrowded conditions with inadequate sanitation and health care, and poor quality food.

Detainees in Dar Naïm and Nouadhibou prisons were pressed up against one another in stifling heat and were rarely allowed to leave their cells.

Prison officials confirmed that the prisons in Dar Naïm and in Nouadhibou did not meet national standards. In particular, they stressed inadequacies in the water disposal system, damp and the lack of ventilation in cells.

Around 30 prisoners with mental health problems were left to wander around the cells with no medical care in Dar Naïm prison. Detainees in Nouadhibou, Dar Naïm and Nouakchott civil prison complained about brutality and corporal punishment. Prisoners were regularly beaten by guards if they asked to see the prison administrator or sought medical care. One prisoner alleged that he was beaten and left tied up for two weeks after a group of prisoners complained about the lack of food and medical care. At least eight Islamist detainees held in Nouakchott civil prison were beaten by guards in October.

Migrants' rights

Hundreds of people suspected of trying to reach European countries were arbitrarily arrested during the year, without evidence of their intentions and even though it is not an offence to leave Mauritania irregularly. Many were expelled from Mauritania, not necessarily to their home countries, and often in large groups. They had no opportunity to challenge the legality of their detention or their collective expulsion. These measures appeared to be a consequence of pressure from the EU, particularly Spain, to control migration to Europe.

Many migrants were held in a detention centre at Nouadhibou, northern Mauritania, known locally as Guantanamito, where some were ill-treated. This former school received up to 300 people a month but was not subject to any judicial control.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

Some refugees and asylum-seekers were denied their rights. Most came from West Africa, particularly Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Death penalty

According to official figures, there were 37 prisoners under sentence of death, held together with other prisoners in six prisons, including Dar Naïm and Nouadhibou prisons.

A number claimed that their trials had been unfair, asserting that they were not allowed to defend themselves properly or that they did not have a lawyer. One prisoner alleged he was sentenced solely on the basis of confessions obtained under torture. Another claimed that he was sentenced after he was forced to sign a police statement in a language he could not read.


Although slavery was officially abolished in 1981 and made a criminal offence in 2007, evidence indicated the continued existence of the practice. People were believed to be held in forced labour or slavery in the regions of Tiris Zemour and Nema. In September a former slave wrote to the authorities asking them to look for 14 members of his family still held in slavery in Tiris Zemour.

Amnesty International visits

Amnesty International delegates visited Mauritania in January, February, July and November.

Amnesty International reports

  • Mauritania: "Nobody wants to have anything to do with us" – arrests and collective expulsions of migrants denied entry into Europe (1 July 2008)
  • Mauritania: Amnesty International calls for the release of the President of the Republic and respect for fundamental freedoms(12 August 2008)
  • Mauritania: Peaceful demonstrations demanding restoration of the rule of law violently repressed (8 October 2008)
  • Mauritania: Torture at the heart of the state (3 December 2008)

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