Freedom in the World
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The Mauritanian government stepped up its efforts to combat terrorism in 2010, approving an antiterrorism law in July and adopting a new counterterrorism strategy in October.The National Assemblypassed legislation in July that allows for private ownership of radio and television stations. In September, the opposition Rally for Democratic Forces finally recognized Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz as the country’s president.
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 misuse of state resources, suppression of the opposition, and manipulation of the media and electoral institutions.
In August 2005, soldiers led by Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall overthrew Taya’s government in a move that received strong public 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. The CMJD set a timeline for holding elections and established an independent electoral commission to administer the process. Legislative and municipal elections were held in November and December 2006, with independent candidates, mostly former PRDS members, securing a majority of the seats. Independents also won a majority of seats in January and February 2007 Senate elections, while Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi, an independent, won the presidency in March. This series of elections were the first in Mauritania’s history to be broadly viewed as generally free and fair.
Abdellahi drew criticism from military leaders and members of the National Party for Democracy and Development (PNDD), a pro-presidential party formed in early 2008, after he invited hard-line Islamists and former members of Taya’s regime into the cabinet. The 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. However, this failed to restore lawmakers’ confidence, and 48 PNDD parliamentarians quit the party on August 4. On the morning of August 6, Abdellahi fired four leading generals. One of them, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, mounted a coup the same day.
Aziz and his allies announced that an 11-member junta, the High State Council (HSC), would run the country until new elections were held.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 refused to participate in the junta-led government.
In April 2009, Aziz announced that he would resign from the military in order to run for president. Despite initial resistance, opposition parties eventually agreed to participate in the presidential vote after six days of negotiations in Senegal. Under international pressure, the HSC in June handed power to a transitional government comprising both opposition and coup supporters that would supervise an election set for July.
Aziz won the election in the first round with 52.6 percent of the vote. Four opposition parties claimed that the results were prefabricated, electoral lists had been tampered with, and fraudulent voters had used fake ballot papers and identity cards. The parties lodged a formal appeal with the Constitutional Council that was ultimately rejected, and the head of the electoral commission resigned over doubts about the election’s conduct. While some opposition parties continued to protest the outcome, the Rally for Democratic Forces (RDF) recognized Aziz’s presidency in September 2010, citing the need for unity in the face of increased terrorist attacks.
Despite the initiation of oil production in 2006, Mauritania remains one of the world’s poorest countries and imports about 70 percent of its food. Three-quarters of the population is dependent on subsistence agriculture and livestock production.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Mauritania is not an electoral democracy.The transitional elections of 2006 and 2007 were generally praised by independent observers, but the constitutional government was ousted by the August 2008 military coup. Serious doubts have been raised about the legitimacy of the 2009 presidential election, which installed coup leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz as the civilian president.
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. The bicameral legislature consists of the 95-seat National Assembly, elected to five-year terms by popular vote in single-member districts, and the 56-seat Senate, with 53 members elected by mayors and municipal councils and three members chosen by the rest of the chamber to represent Mauritanians living abroad. Senators serve six-year terms, with a third coming up for election every two years. In the 2009 Senate elections, the Union for the Republic, formed by Aziz supporters, won 14 of the 17 seats contested. Mauritania’s party system is poorly developed, and clan and ethnic loyalties strongly influence the country’s politics.
Corruption is believed to be a serious problem, and political instability has helped to prevent fiscal transparency from taking root in recent years. The Aziz government’s anticorruption campaign has resulted in some notable arrests, including the detention of the former human rights commissioner on embezzlement charges in September 2010. However, the opposition has criticized the government’s efforts as ineffective and politicized. Mauritania was ranked 143 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index and 165 out of 183 countries in the World Bank’s 2011 Doing Business report. In December 2010, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative designated Mauritania as a candidate country, finding it “close to compliant” with the organization’s requirements.
Journalists continue to practice self-censorship, and private newspapers face the threat of closure for material seen as offensive to Islam or threatening to the state. Following the 2008 coup, the military imposed new restrictions, including the takeover of state broadcast media. In 2009, the editor of the website Taqadoumy, Hanevy Ould Dehah, was sentenced to six months in jail for “offending public decency.”He continued to be held after completing his sentence in December 2009, and was sentenced to two additional years in prison in February 2010. Dehah was finally released later that month under a broader presidential pardon. In July 2010, the National Assembly passed a new law aimed at liberalizing the broadcast sector and allowing private ownership of radio and television stations.However, no private stations had been launched by year’s end.The British Broadcasting Corporation’s World Service and Radio France Internationale are rebroadcast on local FM stations, and wealthier residents have access to satellite television.Several private newspapers compete with state-run Arabic and French dailies, but their reach is limited by low circulation and literacy rates. The government sometimes attempts to restrict internet access, though little more than 1 percent of the population uses the medium.
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 2008 coup, however, the junta banned protests and allowed only supporters to demonstrate. There were fewer instances of police repression of protesters in 2010; in one incident, police violently broke up a sit-in by government employees in Ksar, just outside the capital.
Workers have the legal right to unionize and bargain for wages, but unions must be approved by the public prosecutor and often encounter hostility from employers. Although only about a quarter of Mauritanians are formally employed, the vast majority of workers in the industrial and commercial sectors are unionized. The right to strike is limited by notice requirements and bans on certain forms of strike action. In May 2010, some 50 warehouse workers were reportedly arbitrarily arrested in Nouakchott after demanding pay raises; some were held as long as two weeks.
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, suspects are routinely held for long periods of pretrial detention, 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.
Islamist militants have carried out a number of attacks in Mauritania in recent years. In August 2010, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) carried out a suicide attack on military barracks in Nema, though no soldiers were killed.Mauritanian forces clashed with AQIM at the Malian border in July and September, resulting in the deaths of 27 militants and five soldiers.
The National Assembly passed a new antiterrorism law in July 2010. The original bill, introduced in January, was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Council. The new version includes provisions for court-authorized wiretapping, allows minors to be tried on terrorism charges, and provides immunity to informants who alert government to planned terrorist attacks. Despite its improved wiretapping safeguards, some opposition figures remained concerned that the revised law would lead to violations of civil liberties. In October, the government held a conference with academics and members of civil society that culminated in the adoption of a new counterterrorism strategy. In addition,Mauritania and Mali launched a joint military border patrol in November that enabled cross-border intervention. Also in November, Mauritania conducted its first national census since 1994 in hopes of better controlling its vast territory.
The country’s three main ethnic groups are the politically and economically dominant Moors of Arab and Berber descent; the black descendents of slaves, also known as Haratin or black Moors; and black Africans who are closer in ethnic heritage to the peoples of neighboring Senegal and Mali. Racial and ethnic discrimination persists in all spheres of political and economic life. In April 2010, students clashed at the University of Nouakchott following Francophone student protests in response to speeches made by the prime minister on National Arabic Language Day that emphasized Arabic as the official language of Mauritania.Despite a 1981 law banning slavery in Mauritania, an estimated half a million black Mauritanians are believed to live in conditions of servitude. A 2008 law set penalties of 5 to 10 years in prison for slavery, but it drew criticism for not covering related practices such as forced marriage and indentured labor.
The Aziz government has continued ousted president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi’s initiative to facilitate the return of the some 30,000 black Mauritanians who still reside in Senegal and Mali after being expelled following communal violence in 1989. For the first time, the government in 2009 publically acknowledged its involvement in the expulsion of Afro-Mauritanians between 1989 and 1991 and agreed to provide compensation to 244 widows of those killed during the ordeal. While returnees have faced difficulty in recovering confiscated land, the government has provided them with housing assistance.
Under a 2005 law, party lists for the National Assembly elections must include district-based quotas of female candidates. Women currently hold 21 seats in the National Assembly, 8 Senate seats, 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 rarely respected in practice. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is illegal, but still widely practiced. In January 2010, 34 Islamic scholars issued a religious edict banning FGM. Abortion is legal only when the life of the mother is in danger. Human trafficking remains a serious problem, as the country remains a source and destination for women, men, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation.