The Mauritanian government is guilty of routine and systematic torture, according to a new Amnesty International report.
Mauritania: torture at the heart of the state says that the country's security forces have adopted torture as the preferred method of investigation and repression.
The report details the methods of torture and lists the exact locations of some torture centres.
It also exposes the involvement of Moroccan agents.
Numerous statements from victims of torture give precise information about the people who tortured them. None of the acts have been investigated or their perpetrators brought to justice.
The report is the result of two Amnesty International research missions in February/March 2008 and July 2008. Members of the missions interviewed many prisoners and detainees in the prisons of Dar Naïm in Nouakchott (the capital) and Nouadhibou (in the north-west of the country) and former detainees.
"Torture is used against all categories of prisoners in Mauritania – whether they are suspected Islamists, soldiers accused of involvement in a coup, or those detained for simple ordinary crimes," said Gaëtan Mootoo, Amnesty International's Mauritania researcher who conducted the investigations and who just came back from the country.
Acts of torture are repeated successively until detainees "confess". They are normally conducted at night and accompanied by a "ritual". Methods of torture include cigarette burns, electric shocks, sexual violence, the pulling out of hair and "Jaguar" – where the detainee's hands and feet are tied together and the person is suspended from an iron bar while being hit and tortured.
The perpetrators of these acts of torture and ill-treatment include police officers, military personnel and prison officers. Moroccan security officers have sometimes participated in interrogations and torture, especially in investigations into acts of terrorism.
Places where torture has been carried out include: the first police brigade (opposite the World Health Organization building), the police school in Nouakchott, gendarmerie barracks, the headquarters of the Army Chief of Staff, and Navy premises.
The presence of Moroccan agents in Mauritania was also questioned by the report. Amnesty International has been unable to ascertain the legal basis for their presence. One prisoner told the organization that the Moroccans were more violent than their Mauritanian colleagues.
Prison conditions themselves also often amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Amnesty International representatives visiting the Dar Naïm prison earlier this year were greeted with the unbelievable spectacle of dozens of men pressed up against each other in one cell in the stifling heat. They are unable to leave their cells or breathe fresh air, often for months or even years at a time.
"In some prisons, we could not even get into the cells due to the excessive number of inmates," said Gaëtan Mootoo. "The stench of these cells, which were infested with vermin and ridden with fleas, was indescribable."
Threats were made to prisoners prior to one Amnesty International visit. One prisoner said: "When they told us about Amnesty International's visit, the guards threatened us. They said that we could say whatever we liked, but that we would regret it, because the Amnesty people would be leaving, but we prisoners would be staying there with them."
Police, prosecutors, judges – nearly always regard evidence extracted under torture as perfectly admissible and use these "confessions" to convict defendants – often without having any other material proof.
"Torturers can carry out their abuse safe in the knowledge that the judicial system will turn a blind eye," said Gaëtan Mootoo. "It is an abomination of justice."
The systematic use of torture is the heritage of decades of authoritarianism in Mauritania. The country has suffered two military coups since 2005. The most recent one, in August 2008, resulted in the detention of the democratically elected president and the prime minister. The president remains under house arrest while the prime minister has been transferred to a prison near Nouakchott.
The new military government said it would organize free and transparent elections "within the shortest time possible". Elections have yet to be scheduled.
The African Union has suspended Mauritania's membership and a number of states, including France and the US, have frozen their non-humanitarian aid to the country.
Several peaceful demonstrations have taken place in Mauritania demanding the release of the president and a restoration of constitutional order. Several were forcibly broken up in October 2008. The repression followed the 30 September decision by the governor of Nouakchott to suspend "all demonstrations of a political nature in public places, until further notice."