Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Mauritania

Political context

The year 2008 was marked by the coup d'état that overthrew President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who had come to power in April 2007 and was the first democratically elected President since the country became independent in 1960. His accession to power had resulted in some progress in the field of human rights, in particular the adoption of laws aimed at settling the "humanitarian backlog", in particular on the question of the return of refugees, whose situation was a consequence of the ethnic and racial crises that had divided the Mauritanian society in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, despite the continued human rights violations, especially the generalised use of torture to obtain confessions from people accused of links with Islamic groups, the safety of human rights defenders had improved.

The coup d'état of August 6, 2008, carried out by General Abdelaziz, a former captain of the presidential guard who had been dismissed by the Head of State on August 5, 2008, created a completely new situation.1 The international community, led by the African Union, unanimously condemned the military junta2 and rallied to call for the immediate release of President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and the return to constitutional order. Two weeks later, the junta released the Prime Minister, the Minister of the Interior and the Director of the National Agency for the Support and Integration of Refugees (Agence nationale d'appui et d'insertion des réfugiés), who had been arrested at the same time as the President. The President of the Republic was finally released during the night of December 21, 2008, following the visit of a high level mission to Nouakchott on December 7, 2008, which was seen as the last chance before the adoption of sanctions.3 The AU nevertheless maintained the threat of sanctions if the return to constitutional order had not been achieved by February 6, 2009. The next presidential elections were also set for May 2009 following the "Special Consultation on Democracy" (États généraux de la démocratie), which took place from December 27, 2008 to January 6, 2009, in spite of being boycotted by the clan of overthrown President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.

In this context, any voice calling for a return to democracy and denouncing violations committed by the junta and the police force was repressed and the situation of defenders became extremely precarious once again. In addition, all fundamental freedoms – freedoms of expression, assembly and association – severely regressed. Information was blocked and, for example, all references to events prior to August 6 were erased from the Mauritanian Information Agency website. Similarly, after a television debate organised by Télévision mauritanienne on the subject of "the outcome of the political crisis", a former minister of the deposed Government, Mr. Isselmou Ould Abdel Ghader, was prosecuted before the Mauritanian courts, the Director of the national television was dismissed and the journalist who had convened and organised the on-screen debate was sacked.

Repression of the freedom of peaceful assembly

Following the coup d'état, all peaceful assemblies and demonstrations that did not support the junta were banned. But a great many members of civil society, including members of human rights NGOs and trade union members, still took part in peaceful demonstrations calling for the return to constitutional order and respect for economic and social rights. The security forces used violence to repress several of these peaceful protests. On August 19, 2008 for instance, although the demonstration had been authorised, several union officials, including Mr. Samory Ould Beye, Secretary General of the Free Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (Confédération libre des travailleurs de Mauritanie – CLTM), were molested by the police and forcibly taken to the Tevrag Zeina I police station in Nouakchott, before being subsequently released. This situation was repeated in October when six Mauritanian trade unions4 had called a peaceful demonstration in Nouakchott to celebrate World Day for Decent Work on October 7, 2008. Around twenty demonstrators were injured and several were taken to Tevrag Zeina I police station, including Mr. Abderrahmane Ould Boubou, Secretary General of the Mauritanian Workers' Union (Union des travailleurs mauritaniens – UTM). Violence seems to have become the only response of the new military authorities and the High State Council (Haut conseil d'État – HCE) to defenders' claims. On October 8, 2008, during a demonstration organised by the political parties to call for the return to constitutional order, the headquarters of the Mauritanian Human Rights Association (Association mauritanienne des droits de l'Homme – AMDH), where demonstrators had sought refuge, was wrecked by the police, who fired tear gas grenades into the premises and broke down the main door.

Intimidation, threats and stigmatisation of defenders

In 2008, both before and after the coup d'état, human rights defenders continued to be threatened regularly in the press, on Internet, during sermons in mosques, or by telephone. They were subjected to telephone taps and were tailed. These threats further increased after the coup d'état. Civil society was indeed made responsible for the sanctions adopted by the international community against the junta. During a meeting in Akjoujt in October, a Member of Parliament called for the dissolution of all human rights NGOs and for all defenders "to be beaten up". In addition, from October 2008, Ms. Aminetou Mint El Mokhtar, President of the Association of Women Heads of Families (Association des femmes chefs de familles – AFCF), received anonymous death threats each time she published articles on-line denouncing human rights violations in Mauritania. On December 14, 2008, a man approached her and threatened her with death and tried to run her over with his vehicle.

Urgent Interventions issued by The Observatory in 20085

Names of human rights defenders / NGOsViolationsIntervention ReferenceDate of Issuance
Trade-union members, including Mr. Samory Ould BeyeObstacles to freedom to demonstratePress ReleaseAugust 21, 2008
Members of the Mauritanian Workers' Union (UTM), the Free Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (CLTM), the General Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (CGTM), the Federation of Free Trade Unions in Mauritania (USLM), the National Union of Mauritanian Workers (UNTM) and the National Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (CNTM)Obstacles to freedom to demonstratePress ReleaseOctober 9, 2008

1 The Prime Minister had formed a new Government in mid July to put an end to two weeks of political crisis after the previous cabinet resigned on July 3 under threat of a motion of censure in Parliament.

2 See EU Presidency Declaration August 6, 2008. In addition, on September 22, 2008, the Peace and Security Council of the African Union warned the actors of the coup and their civilian supporters of the risk of sanctions and isolation if they did not give a positive response to the demand made on October 6, 2008 for the return to constitutional order. However, sanctions were not adopted at either of the two consultative meetings held in Addis-Ababa on November 10 and 21 at the African Union headquarters, or the coordination meeting on the situation in Mauritania held in Brussels on December 12, 2008. Due to the junta's lack of reaction in this regard, on October 20 the EU opened consultations in the framework of Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement and several consultations also took place under the umbrella of the African Union. In the case of violation by one of the parties of certain essential elements of the Agreement (respect for human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law), this mechanism provides for increased consultation in order to resolve the situation.

3 The high level mission was led by the AU and included representatives from the UN, the International Organisation of Francophonie, the Islamic Conference and the Arab League.

4 The Mauritanian Workers' Union (Union des travailleurs mauritaniens – UTM), the General Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (Confédération générale des travailleurs de Mauritanie – CGTM), the CLTM, the Federation of Free Trade Unions in Mauritania (Union des syndicats libres de Mauritanie – USLM), the National Union of Mauritanian Workers (Union nationale des travailleurs de Mauritanie – UNTM) and the National Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (Confédération nationale des travailleurs de Mauritanie – CNTM).

5 See the Compilation of cases in the CD-Rom attached to this report.


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