Mauritania | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2005

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Authorities in Mauritania announced that they had foiled two coup plots, one at the end of 2003 by the incumbent's main challenger who was defeated in the 2003 presidential election, and another in 2004 allegedly backed by Burkina Faso and Libya.

After nearly six decades of French colonial rule, Mauritania's borders as an independent state were formalized in 1960. A 1978 military coup ended a civilian one-party state led by Moktaar Ould Daddah. Another coup, in 1984, installed Colonel Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya as Mauritania's leader. The absence of an independent election commission, state control of broadcasts, harassment of independent print media, and the incumbent's use of state resources to promote his candidacy devalued Taya's presidential victories in 1992 - the country's first, and deeply flawed, multiparty poll - and again in 1997. Taya's Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS) ruled the country as a de facto one-party state after the main opposition parties boycotted National Assembly elections in 1992 and 1996.

In the 2001 municipal and National Assembly elections, Mauritanians were, for the first time, permitted to exercise their constitutional right to choose their representatives in relatively open, competitive elections. More than a dozen parties participated in the elections to choose 81 members of the National Assembly. However, the ruling PRDS was the only party to present candidates in every constituency, and the electoral law was modified to ban independent candidates, whose seats went mainly to the PRDS. The PRDS won 64 assembly seats, while opposition parties won 17.

In June 2003, the Taya government weathered a coup attempt that triggered two days of fighting in the capital. Some of the leaders of the uprising escaped and announced the formation of an armed rebel movement called the Knights of Change.

The November 2003 presidential election saw the issuance of new voter cards that were difficult to falsify, the publication of a list of registered voters, and the use of transparent ballot boxes. However, although the six candidates were each allocated equal time on state-run broadcast media, Taya received more than his share. Civil society groups were barred from forming an independent body to monitor the poll, and many foreign observers declined to participate after Taya's main challenger, Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, was briefly detained on the eve of the election. Police raided the home of Haidalla, whom Taya had overthrown nearly two decades ago, reportedly on suspicion that he and his supporters were plotting to overthrow Taya if Haidalla lost the election. Opposition members said some voters were allowed to cast ballots without proper identification and that opposition representatives were barred from polling stations. They also reported double voting, voting by proxy, and vote buying.

Taya was reelected to another six-year term with 67 percent of the vote compared with 19 percent for Haidallah. The day after the election, authorities detained Haidallah, and he and more than a dozen of his supporters were to go on trial for allegedly threatening state security. Although opposition candidates disputed the results of the election, they did not choose to take their complaints to court. Haidallah received a five-year suspended prison sentence in December 2003 after being found guilty of planning a coup to seize power immediately after the November presidential poll. An appeals court in April 2004 confirmed that he would be stripped of his political rights for five years.

In September 2004, the government announced that it had foiled a new coup plot and accused Burkina Faso and Libya of backing disgruntled soldiers. Both countries denied the charges. Three leading opposition leaders, including former president Haidallah, were detained in November 2004 and charged with scheming to overthrow the government. They were among the nearly 200 people, including about 170 military personnel, who were put on trial at the end of November 2004 for coup plotting. The government accuses some of the suspects of belonging to an Islamist grouping that is dissatisfied with Taya's pro-Israel and pro-U.S. policies. Some opposition supporters say the charges are a convenient way for the government to silence its political opposition.

Mauritania has been cultivating closer ties with the United States and is undergoing free market reform. The country is one of three Arab League states, along with Egypt and Jordan, that has diplomatic relations with Israel, despite domestic criticism. Diplomatic ties were established in 1999. Mauritania is working with the United States as part of the Pan-Sahel Initiative to promote security and stem the growth of terrorist organizations across the vast Sahel region.

Mauritania is one of the world's poorest countries, although recently oil has been discovered offshore. Much of the country's wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite that controls an economy based on iron ore exports and fishing. In 2004, Mauritania was faced with agricultural devastation, as swarms of locusts threatened to destroy the country's agricultural production and trigger famine.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Mauritanians cannot choose their government democratically. The National Assembly exercises little independence from the executive. The country's narrowly based, authoritarian regime has gradually become liberalized, but most power remains in the hands of the president and a very small elite. The November 2003 presidential poll lacked transparency and was held in an atmosphere of intimidation. The president is elected for a six-year term and appoints the prime minister. The ruling party dominates the bicameral legislature. Members of the 81-seat National Assembly are elected by popular vote every 5 years. Polls for some of the Senate seats are held every 2 years; the remainder of senators, who are elected by municipal leaders, serve six-year terms.

In 2004, the government denied a request to legalize the Party for Democratic Convergence. Authorities say the party includes Islamic radicals and fugitives. The party was formed from the broad coalition of opposition forces that backed Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla for the 2003 presidential election.

Mauritania was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. Authorities in 2004 promised sweeping anti-corruption measures after prosecutors broke a rare case against five officials of the rural development ministry accused of stealing more than $1 million.

Prepublication censorship, arrests of journalists, and seizures and bans of newspapers devalue constitutional guarantees of free expression. The state monopolizes all broadcast media. Independent publications openly criticize the government, but all publications must be submitted to the Interior Ministry prior to distribution. The constitution forbids dissemination of reports deemed to "attack the principles of Islam or the credibility of the state, harm the general interest, or disturb public order and security." The government does not impede Internet access.

Police in June 2004 detained and interrogated Aidahy Ould Saleck, regional correspondent of the independent L'Eveil Hebdo weekly newspaper, for four hours in connection with a story about police abuses.

Mauritania is an Islamic state in which, by statute, all citizens are Muslims who 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. President Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya has targeted Muslim extremism. Academic freedom is guaranteed and is not restricted, although security forces have cracked down violently on student demonstrations in the past.

Freedom of association is restricted, and infrequent demonstrations are often violently suppressed. The law requires all recognized political parties and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to apply to the local prefect for permission to hold large meetings or assemblies. While numerous NGOs, including human rights and antislavery groups, operate, a handful of black African activist groups and Islamist parties are banned.

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. A judicial reform program is underway. Prison conditions in Mauritania are harsh, but conditions have slightly improved. There were several reports in 2004 of arbitrary arrest and detention. Security forces suspected of human rights violations operated with impunity.

Mauritania's people include the dominant Beydane (white Maurs) of Arab extraction and Haratine (black Maurs) of African descent. Other, non-Muslim, black Africans inhabiting the country's southern frontiers along the Senegal River valley constitute approximately one-third of the population. For centuries, black Africans were subjugated and taken as slaves by both white and black Maurs. In 2003, the government passed a law that makes slavery a crime and provides for punishment of violators. Although the government does not officially sanction slavery, a few thousand blacks still live in conditions of servitude. A government campaign against the mainly black southern part of the country in the late 1980s culminated with a massive deportation of blacks to Senegal, and relations between the two countries remain strained.

The Mauritanian Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a report in 2004 that said slavery was an ongoing and widespread practice, as was discrimination against Mauritania's black minority. The government denied the allegations.

Societal discrimination against women is widespread, but is improving. In 2003, for the first time, a female candidate participated in the presidential election and 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 intensive media and education campaigns against this practice.