Human rights defenders, bloggers, anti-slavery activists and other opponents of the government were intimidated, attacked and prosecuted for their peaceful activities. Freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly were restricted. International human rights activists were refused entry to the country. Torture and other ill-treatment in custody was common. Haratine and Afro-Mauritanian people faced systematic discrimination. Slavery practices persist.
In March, the Senate rejected a proposal to amend the 1991 Constitution. The authorities called a referendum for August; the majority voted to abolish the Senate.
Freedoms of expression, association and assembly
Security forces continued to intimidate and attack bloggers, human rights defenders and others who criticized the government.
Anti-slavery activists, among them prisoners of conscience, were detained. Abdallahi Abdou Diop was released in January after serving a six-month prison sentence. Abdallahi Maatalla Seck and Moussa Biram remained in Bir Moghrein prison, more than 1,000km from their homes, since July 2016. The three prisoners of conscience were convicted on charges including participating in an unauthorized gathering and membership of an unauthorized association.
In April, the security forces used tear gas and batons to repress a peaceful protest in the capital, Nouakchott, that was organized by youth groups calling for policies to address youth unemployment and to support young people. At least 26 people were arrested. Most of them were released the same day, but 10 were detained for four days, charged with participating in an unauthorized gathering. The court in Nouakchott gave one woman a three-month suspended prison sentence, which was overturned on appeal. The others were acquitted.
On 23 April, police arrested seven people, of whom four were foreign nationals and two were children, in connection with their attending a religious service in Nouakchott. One of them was released without charge after three days; the others were charged with belonging to an unauthorized organization and released six days later.
Ahead of the August referendum, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about the authorities’ apparent suppression of dissent and the reported use of excessive force against protest leaders.
Five days after the referendum, Senator Mohamed Ould Ghadda, who opposed the vote, was arrested and charged with corruption. He remained in detention without trial at the end of the year. Three weeks later, 12 Senators and four journalists were questioned by a judge regarding allegations that they received financial support from a businessman. They were required to sign weekly at the police station while the police were investigating the allegations.
In November, the Appeal Court of Nouadhibou commuted the death sentence of blogger Mohamed Mkhaïtir to two years’ imprisonment. He was convicted in December 2014 of apostasy for writing a blog critical of those who used Islam to foster discrimination against Moulamines (blacksmiths) and had been held since January 2014. Although he was scheduled for release at the end of the year, he remained in custody; his family and his lawyers were not able to visit him or confirm his whereabouts.
In November, 15 human rights defenders were arrested in the southern town of Kaédi by plain clothes men who identified themselves as members of the Battalion for Presidential Security. They had been distributing leaflets and holding banners calling for justice for their relatives who had been unlawfully killed between 1989 and 1991. They were taken to a military base and questioned about their activities. Ten were released the same day and five were transferred to a police station and detained for six days, without access to a lawyer, before being released without charge.
International human rights activists and NGOs were refused access to Mauritania throughout the year. In May, a foreign lawyer and journalist carrying out research into slavery were asked to leave the country. In September, US anti-slavery activists were denied entry visas when they arrived at Nouakchott International Airport. In November, the authorities refused an Amnesty International delegation access to the country.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Detainees reported that they were tortured during pre-trial detention in order to extract confessions and to intimidate them. People held in police stations including the Commissariat in Nouakchott were routinely placed in prolonged solitary confinement − a type of detention condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee as a violation of the prohibition of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
In his March report, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture acknowledged that while torture and other ill-treatment was no longer “rampant”, it occurred frequently. He expressed concern that the “culture of torture” persisted in police and gendarmerie units, and that torture continued to be used to extract confessions. The Special Rapporteur noted that the practice of detaining terrorism suspects for up to 45 days without access to legal representation was excessive; oversight mechanisms for the investigation of allegations of torture and other ill-treatment lacked due diligence and were slow; existing laws and safeguards needed to be expanded and implemented; and that there was no significant improvement in detention conditions, such as overcrowding, poor sanitation and inadequate nutrition.
Economic, social and cultural rights
In his report in March the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights concluded that while the government had made progress in alleviating poverty in recent years, a large proportion of the population continued to live in poverty without adequate access to food, education, water, sanitation and health care. The Special Rapporteur stressed that despite Mauritania’s obligations under international human rights treaties, there was a complete absence of prenatal and postnatal care in rural areas. He also highlighted that Haratines and Afro-Mauritanians, who constituted an estimated two thirds of the population, were excluded from many areas of economic and social life. In addition, the fact that the government had not collected statistics on the numbers of Haratine and Afro-Mauritanian people in the country, served to render their needs and rights invisible.
Refugees’ and migrants’ rights
In his March report, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture expressed concerns about the collective expulsion of irregular migrants and refugees who were often abandoned on the southern border with Senegal which could contravene the principle of non-refoulement. During a visit to a site where irregular migrants were held in Nouakchott, he said that the 20 to 30 detainees had no toilet facilities and had insufficient room to lie or even sit down to sleep.