Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
The current leadership in Mauritania came to power in 2008 through a military coup. It has since confirmed its position in flawed elections that were boycotted by the main opposition parties. The government has adopted laws to address the problem of institutionalized slavery and discrimination, but it continues to arrest antislavery activists. Blasphemy and apostasy are punishable under the death penalty.
Key Developments in 2017:
- Constitutional reforms adopted through a referendum held in August dissolved the Senate, the upper chamber in the bicameral legislature. The main opposition coalition boycotted the referendum, claiming that the president sought the dissolution of the body to pave the way for a constitutional amendment that would allow him to seek a third term.
- In August, Senator Mohamed Ould Ghadda, who opposed dissolving the Senate, was arrested on vaguely defined corruption charges. At the end of the year, he was still held in detention.
- In November, an appeals court reduced the sentence for a blogger who had been sentenced to death for apostasy in 2014 to two years. Also in November, a draft law was presented to the National Assembly that would no longer make it possible for those found guilty of apostasy to repent and thus avoid the death penalty.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 9 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 3 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4
The president is directly elected to as many as two consecutive five-year terms by popular vote. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who first came to power through a military coup in 2008, won a second term in 2014 representing the Union for the Republic (UPR), taking 82 percent of the vote. Most opposition parties, including the main opposition coalition, the National Front for the Defense of Democracy (FNDU), boycotted the election, claiming that the process was flawed and biased. The antislavery activist Biram Dah Abeid ran as an independent and captured 9 percent of the vote. His allegations of electoral misconduct and fraud were dismissed by the authorities.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4
Until 2017, the Mauritanian legislature was bicameral, with a National Assembly and a Senate. Constitutional reforms adopted through the passage of an August referendum dissolved the Senate. The National Assembly was elected in 2013 in a poll that most major opposition parties boycotted, claiming the results were predetermined and the process nontransparent.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4
The opposition has denounced the lack of independence of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Opposition leaders have also criticized the electoral party lists as discriminatory, arguing that the electoral census deliberately excluded many Haratin and Afro-Mauritanians. The most recent legislative and presidential elections were conducted before the completion of the national census. As a result, Mauritanians without a newly issued identity card were unable to vote.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 2 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 1 / 4
Though political parties are free to operate, many obstructions prevent parties from successfully mobilizing their bases. Authorities often break up or otherwise prevent demonstrations organized by political parties. In November 2017, police violently dispersed protests organized by several political parties against the commutation of a blogger’s death sentence for apostasy. Also in November, several opposition parties, including the National Rally for Reform and Development, an Islamist party, were denied a permit for a planned protest against the government’s policies.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 1 / 4
The opposition does not have a realistic opportunity to gain power through elections. Most opposition parties boycotted both the 2013 parliamentary elections and the 2014 presidential election, citing a system dominated by the ruling UPR, which won both elections handily.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 0 / 4
The political choices of Mauritanians are greatly influenced by the military, which dominates the political system. Since 1978, Mauritania has either been under military rule or led by a military leader, with the exception of 18 months of civilian government between 2007 and 2008.
Traditional religious leaders exert influence on voters, often backing the ruling UPR and urging voters to support its initiatives.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0 / 4
The Bidhan ethnic group dominates the Mauritanian government, while Afro-Mauritanians and the Haratin ethnic group are underrepresented in elected positions and in high-level government roles. Discrimination hinders the ability of these groups to gain power. Thousands of Afro-Mauritanians who were forced out of their villages by the military in 1989 have been allowed to return, but many of them face difficulties when trying to enroll in the census and register to vote. Discrimination against Afro-Mauritanians persists in the electoral process, since many lack the government identity cards necessary to vote.
Women participate in politics at lower levels than men, largely due to traditional cultural norms. 31 out of 147 seats in the National Assembly are held by women, and nine out of 29 ministers are women.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 4 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 1 / 4
The executive dominates the legislative branch in Mauritania. The president has the power to dissolve the National Assembly, but the legislature has no impeachment power over the president. The 2017 referendum that dissolved the Senate was viewed by many observers as an attempt by President Aziz to consolidate his dominance over the legislative branch, which could make it easier to pass a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for a third term. The opposition called for a boycott of the vote.
The military remains a powerful force in the Mauritanian government, and still has a great deal of influence on policymaking.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4
Although the government has adopted numerous anticorruption laws and in 2005 signed the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption, corruption remains widespread and the laws are not effectively enforced. A report published in July 2017 by Sherpa, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), documents multiple cases of corruption at the highest levels of the Aziz administration that have gone unpunished. Among other cases, the report alleges that the president’s son used his influence to ensure that the French subsidiary of a Finnish company, Wärtsilä, received a contract to construct a power plant in exchange for a payment of over $11 million.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
The government largely lacks transparency, particularly in granting mining and fishing licenses, land distribution, government contracts, and tax payments. The construction of a new airport in Nouakchott that opened in 2016 drew criticism—a company with no experience in airport construction won a contract to build the facility through an opaque procurement process.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 21 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 9 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4
Mauritania has a vibrant media landscape, with several privately owned newspapers, television stations, and radio stations in operation. However, journalists who cover sensitive topics or scrutinize the political elite can face harassment and arrest. In October 2017, the government shut down five television stations for failing to pay their airing bills. Journalists claimed that the move was in retaliation for critical coverage of the August referendum to dissolve the Senate. Several journalists covering protests against the referendum were also arrested in August and September.
In 2014, a court in Nouadhibou sentenced Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir, an independent blogger, to death for apostasy in an expedited judicial process. Ould M’Kheitir had criticized the unequal social order in Mauritania and the prophet Muhammad. In November 2017, an appeals court in Nouadhibou reduced Ould M’Kheitir’s death sentence to two years in prison, which he had already served. Ould M’Kheitir was still in custody at the end of the year.
Criminal defamation laws remain on the books, and are sometimes enforced against journalists. Most journalists practice a degree of self-censorship when covering potentially contentious issues such as the military, corruption, and slavery.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2 / 4
Mauritania is an Islamic republic. Non-Muslims cannot proselytize or become citizens, and those who convert from Islam to another religion lose their citizenship. In practice, however, non-Muslim communities have not been targeted for persecution.
Apostasy is a crime punishable by death. To date, nobody has been executed for the crime. However, a draft law was presented to the National Assembly in November 2017 that would mandate the death penalty for all apostasy convictions.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4
Academic freedom is largely respected. However, the increasing use of Arabic as the lingua franca at universities has hindered Afro-Mauritanian students’ access to education. Student activists sometimes face pressure from university administrators, including threats of expulsion and intimidation.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 2 / 4
At times, individuals face reprisals for expressing views critical of the government on social media, including termination of employment from government agencies. In October 2017,
Abdellahi Ould Mohamed Ould El Haimer was fired from his job at the National Rural Water Agency after writing a Facebook post critical of the prime minister. The director of the agency claimed he was fired for “gross misconduct.”
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 4 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4
While the constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, organizers are required to obtain consent from the government for large gatherings, which is often denied. In 2017, protests and demonstrations were often violently broken up by authorities. In April, police used tear gas to suppress a peaceful demonstration in Nouakchott convened to address youth unemployment; at least 26 protesters were arrested.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1 / 4
NGOs, particularly antislavery organizations, frequently encounter intimidation, violence, and repression in carrying out their activities. At the end of 2017, Abdallahi Maatalla Seck and Moussa Biram, leaders of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania (IRA Mauritania), an antislavery organization, remained in prison after their conviction for membership in an unauthorized association, among other charges. IRA Mauritania has repeatedly been denied registration by the government.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4
Workers have the legal right to unionize, but unions require approval from the public prosecutor to operate and often confront hostility from employers. Approximately 25 percent of Mauritanians are employed in the formal economy, but around 90 percent of workers in the industrial and commercial sectors are unionized. The right to collective bargaining is not always respected, and the government sometimes pressures union members to withdraw their membership. The right to strike is limited by notice requirements and other onerous regulations.
F. RULE OF LAW: 4 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4
Mauritania’s judiciary lacks independence. The president has the power to unilaterally appoint many key judges, including three of the six judges on the Constitutional Court and the chair of the Supreme Court. The courts are subject to political pressure from the executive branch. Instances of judges facing retaliatory measures for issuing rulings against the government have been reported.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4
Due process rights are often not respected in practice. Suspects are frequently arrested without being informed of the charges against them. Lengthy pretrial detentions are common.
Arbitrary arrests of opposition politicians, journalists, and human rights activists occur with some frequency. In August 2017, Mohamed Ould Ghadda, a senator who opposed the 2017 referendum to abolish the Senate, was arrested on vague corruption charges. At the end of 2017, he was still held in detention.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1 / 4
Torture and abuse at Mauritania’s prisons and detention centers remained a problem in 2017, and perpetrators are rarely held accountable. Police frequently beat suspects following arrest.
Prisons are plagued by violence, are overcrowded, and lack basic sanitation. Food shortages are also common in prisons. Children are sometimes held with the adult prison population.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4
Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Mauritania and punishable by death for men. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) individuals generally hide their sexual orientation or gender identity due to severe discrimination.
Sharia law as it is applied in Mauritania discriminates against women. The testimony of two women is equal to that of one man. Female victims of crime are entitled to only half the financial compensation that male victims receive.
There were reports of refugees being expelled and ultimately abandoned just across the border in Senegal, violating the principal of nonrefoulement, which obligates countries to not return refugees to a country where they will face further persecution.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 4 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1 / 4
While the Bidhan population is relatively free to make personal decisions about residence, employment, and education, the choices of Afro-Mauritanians and the Haratin are often constrained by racial and caste-based discrimination. People lacking government identity cards are not allowed to travel in some regions, which disproportionately effects Afro-Mauritanians.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
Though the law guarantees property rights, these rights are not always enforced in practice, as it can be difficult to get property disputes fairly adjudicated in court. Complex laws and an opaque bureaucracy present challenged to starting a business.
Many Afro-Mauritanians who left their homes in the Senegal River Valley in the wake of the 1989 conflict have returned, but have been unable to regain ownership of their land. Local authorities reportedly allow the Bidhan to appropriate land used by the Haratin and Afro-Mauritanians.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4
According to UNICEF’s 2016 The State of the World’s Children report, 37 percent of girls are married before the age of 18. In January 2017, the government sent parliament a bill that would ban marriage for girls under 18. The bill failed in the National Assembly, largely due to pressure from religious leaders. Female genital mutilation is illegal, but the law is rarely enforced and the practice is still common. Domestic violence and rape remained problems in 2017, and victims rarely sought legal redress—convictions for these crimes were rare.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 0 / 4
Despite amendments to the antislavery law passed in 2015 meant to address the problem more robustly, slavery and slavery-like practices continued in 2017, with many former slaves still reliant on their former owners due to racial discrimination, poverty, and other socioeconomic factors. Some rights groups estimate that up to 20 percent of the population is enslaved or endures slavery-like practices. The government rarely prosecutes perpetrators and cracks down on NGOs that push for greater enforcement of the law.
Trafficking in persons remains a problem in Mauritania in 2017. The government failed to prosecute a recruitment agency that allegedly recruited more than 200 women under false pretenses into forced prostitution and domestic slavery in Saudi Arabia in 2016.