Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Mauritania’s political rights rating declined from 4 to 6, its civil liberties rating declined from 4 to 5, and its status declined from Partly Free to Not Free, due to the military’s ouster of the democratically elected president, the arrest of top civilian officials, and the imposition of restrictions on assembly and the media.
President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi was ousted in an August 2008 coup by the head of the Presidential Guard after he moved to dismiss top military leaders. Military authorities detained the president and several other officials, took control of the state broadcast media, and cracked down on anticoup demonstrations. At year’s end, the military-led government had not established a timetable for the return to constitutional government. The deposed president remained under house arrest until late December, while the ousted prime minister remained imprisoned at the end of 2008. International condemnation of the coup was widespread, and the junta faced the suspension of foreign aid. Meanwhile, discrimination against certain ethnic groups and women remained prevalent.
Following independence from France in 1960, Mauritania was ruled by a series of civilian and military authoritarian regimes. In 1984, Colonel Maaouya Ould Sidi Ahmed Taya ousted President Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah. Although Taya introduced a multiparty system in 1991, he repeatedly secured poll victories for himself and his Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS) through the abuse of state resources, suppression of the opposition, and manipulation of the media and electoral institutions. Opposition groups often responded with electoral boycotts, and a failed coup attempt triggered two days of fighting in the capital in June 2003.
In September 2004, Taya’s government accused Burkina Faso and Libya of backing disgruntled soldiers in another failed coup. Former president Haidallah—Taya’s unsuccessful main challenger in the 2003 presidential election—and two other opposition leaders were put on trial for coup plotting, along with 170 military personnel. Haidallah and most of the others were acquitted in February 2005, although four soldiers received life sentences.
Military officers led by Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall finally overthrew Taya’s government in August 2005, a move that was greeted with strong domestic support. Soon after taking power, the Military Council for Justice and Democracy (CMJD) pardoned and released hundreds of political prisoners, and dozens of political activists returned from exile. In October, the CMJD set a timeline for holding elections and established an independent electoral commission to administer the process. Voters in June 2006 approved a constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two five-year terms. Legislative and municipal elections were held in November and December 2006, with independent candidates, mostly former PRDS members, securing a majority of the seats. Senate elections were held in January and February 2007, and independents again won a majority. Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi, running as an independent, was elected president in March with 52 percent of the second-round vote. This series of elections were the first in Mauritania’s history to be broadly viewed as generally free and fair.
On August 6, 2008, the head of the Presidential Guard, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, ousted Abdellahi in a coup. The president had drawn criticism from military leaders and members of the ruling National Party for Democracy and Development (PNDD), a pro-presidential party formed in early 2008, due in part to his inclusion of hard-line Islamists and former members of Taya’s regime in the cabinet in May 2008. That government resigned in June under the threat of a parliamentary no-confidence vote, and Abdellahi formed a new cabinet in July that included only PNDD members. This also failed to gain lawmakers’ confidence, however, and 48 PNDD members of parliament quit the party on August 4. The coup was mounted shortly after Abdellahi fired four leading generals, including Abdel Aziz, on the morning of August 6. Security forces arrested the president, the prime minister, and several other officials.
The coup leaders announced that an 11-member junta, the High State Council, would run the country until new elections were held, but that other institutions such as the parliament could continue to function normally. While the international community strongly condemned the coup and key donors suspended nonhumanitarian aid, the domestic reaction was mixed. A majority of lawmakers and mayors expressed support, but a coalition of four pro-Abdellahi parties formed the National Front for the Defense of Democracy, and some parties refused to participate in the junta-led government, which was formed on September 1. The next day, the legislature selected an eight-member panel to try the president on charges of corruption and obstructing parliament. At the end of 2008, the junta had still not established a timetable for a return to constitutional government. The deposed president remained under house arrest until December 21, but the ousted prime minister remained imprisoned at year’s end.
Despite the initiation of oil production in 2006, Mauritania remains one of the world poorest countries, with some three-quarters of the population dependent on subsistence agriculture and livestock production. Mauritania imports about 70 percent of its food, and rising global food prices sparked social unrest in late 2007 and early 2008 that helped to weaken Abdellahi’s presidency.
Mauritania is not an electoral democracy. The transitional elections of 2006 and 2007 were generally praised by independent observers, but constitutional government was suspended by the August 2008 coup. Under the 1991 constitution, the president is responsible for appointing and dismissing the prime minister and cabinet, and a 2006 amendment imposed a limit of two five-year presidential terms. While the 2006 amendments also banned the president from leading a political party, then president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi’s supporters established the PNDD in early 2008. In the 2006 legislative elections, members of the 95-seat National Assembly, the lower house of the bicameral legislature, were elected to five-year terms by popular vote in single-member districts. The 53 members of the Senate, the upper house, were elected by mayors and municipal council members, and three were chosen by other senators to represent Mauritanians living abroad. All senators were elected to serve six-year terms.
Some 25 parties competed in the 2006 legislative and municipal elections, and 19 parties competed in the 2007 presidential election. However, Mauritania lacks a developed party system, and it was widely accepted that Abdellahi was the military’s choice for president in 2007. Independents won over 40 percent of the National Assembly seats, and political debate during the campaign periods was weak. Long-standing restrictions on religious and ethnic-based parties remain in place, although authorities permitted Islamist candidates to contest the transitional elections as independents, and allowed a moderate Islamist party to form in 2007. A complex web of clan and ethnic loyalties also strongly influences the country’s politics.
The transitional government established after the 2005 coup took a number of steps to reduce corruption, creating an inspector general’s office and working to improve transparency in the management of oil revenues. Although Abdellahi was publicly committed to fighting corruption, he was criticized prior to the 2008 coup for blocking an inquiry into the misuse of public funds by his wife. Mauritania was ranked 115 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Press freedom generally improved under the transitional government and during Abdellahi’s presidency, but journalists continued to practice self-censorship, and private newspapers faced the threat of closure for material seen as offensive to Islam or threatening to the state. The military imposed new media restrictions after the 2008 coup, beginning with the takeover of state broadcast media. Several private newspapers were unable to publish the day after the coup when soldiers blocked the road to the country’s only printing press, although they were able to post content online. At least two journalists were arrested for attempting to cover anticoup protests in August and October. Separately, the publisher of and a reporter for the weekly Al-Houriya were charged in June with libel and insult for criticizing a minister’s participation in a celebration of the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding, and both men were detained for four weeks for “insulting” judges before being released in August.
Several private newspapers compete with state-run Arabic and French dailies, although their reach is limited by low circulation and a national literacy rate of only about 50 percent. There are no private radio or television stations licensed in the country, but Radio France Internationale broadcasts in the capital. While the government does not restrict internet access, less than 1 percent of the population was able to access this resource in 2008. The Al-Anba’ website, which promised to expose corruption among top military officers, was reportedly blocked in early November.
Mauritania was declared an Islamic republic under the 1991 constitution, and proselytizing by non-Muslims is banned. In practice, however, non-Muslim communities have not been targeted for persecution. Academic freedom is respected.
The 1991 constitution guaranteed freedoms of association and assembly, and conditions grew more permissive when civilian rule was restored after the 2005 coup. In the wake of the latest coup, however, the junta banned protests and allowed only supporters to demonstrate. Security forces used tear gas to disperse protesters on August 7 and 8, as well as on October 5, the day before an African Union deadline to reinstate Abdellahi. Anticoupmarchers were again dispersed in mid-November. Although the deposed prime minister was released five days after his initial detention, he was rearrested on August 21 for attending an anticoup demonstration and remained in prison at year’s end.
Workers have the constitutional right to unionize and bargain for wages, and all except members of the military, police, and judiciary are free to do so in practice. Although only about one-quarter of Mauritanians are formally employed, the vast majority in the industrial and commercial sectors are unionized. The right to strike is limited by arbitration requirements.
The judicial system is heavily influenced by the government. Many decisions are shaped by Sharia (Islamic law), especially in family and civil matters. Prison conditions are harsh, and security forces suspected of human rights abuses operate with impunity. There are reports that prisoners, particularly terrorism suspects, are subject to torture by authorities. Between May and June 2008, a new prison for suspected terrorists was built on a military base, and several inmates staged a hunger strike on June 6 to protest conditions there.
Mauritania has suffered a series of small-scale attacks by Islamist militants in recent years. In December 2007, members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) killed four French tourists, and three soldiers were killed in a separate attack. AQIM gunmen fired at the Israeli embassy in February 2008, injuring three civilians, and in September, the group abducted and later killed 11 soldiers and their civilian guide. The authorities have responded harshly to the rise in attacks, and have arrested numerous terrorism suspects.
In July 2007, President Abdellahi announced plans for the return of black Mauritanians who had been expelled following communal violence in 1989. By June 2008, as many as 4,000 refugees had returned, out of a population of some 24,000 in Senegal and 6,000 in Mali. They received housing assistance, but many faced difficulty recovering confiscated land. Resettlement slowed during the summer rainy season but resumed in late October.
Freedom of movement was hampered in the country after the August 2008 coup, as checkpoints multiplied and the general security presence increased.
Under rules established during the transitional period, party lists for the National Assembly elections had to include district-based quotas of female candidates. At the municipal level, women were guaranteed 20 percent of all seats. The 2006 polling left women with 17 seats in the National Assembly and 30 percent of all municipal council seats. Nevertheless, discrimination against women persists. Under Sharia, a woman’s testimony is given only half the weight of a man’s. Legal protections regarding property and pay equity are usually respected only in urban areas among the educated elite. It is estimated that three-quarters of women have been subjected to female genital mutilation, and while the government has initiated a campaign to discourage the procedure, it remains legal. Abortion is prohibited in all circumstances.
According to the U.S. State Department, Mauritania is a source and destination country for children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation. Although a 2003 law prohibits trafficking, the government lacks the resources to restrict the practice and has been slow to prosecute suspected traffickers.