Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The constitution prohibits torture. Additionally, in 2015 the government adopted a law against torture that requires the establishment of a mechanism for its prevention. This law considers torture, acts of torture, and inhuman or degrading punishments as crimes against humanity not subject to a statute of limitations. The law specifically covers activities in prisons, rehabilitation centers for minors in conflict with the law, places of custody, psychiatric institutions, detention centers, areas of transit, and border crossing points. Despite this statute, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported security and law enforcement officials tortured NGO members. Methods of abuse reportedly included beatings and stripping of clothing. There were credible reports of torture, beatings, and abuse in police detention centers and several prisons throughout the country, and in gendarmerie and military facilities.
For example, on June 13, the family of Mohamed Ould Brahim Maatalla alleged he died of cardiac arrest after police tortured him. On June 14, Minister of Interior and Decentralization Ahmedou Ould Abdallah publicly denied the allegation.
In 2016 the government created the National Mechanism for Prevention of Torture (MNP) as an independent governmental body charged with investigating credible allegations of torture. The MNP had not launched any investigation since its inception.
The UN special rapporteur on torture visited the country in January-February 2017 and went to several prisons. The rapporteur encouraged the judiciary to redouble its efforts in implementing safeguards against torture. He expressed concern over the lack of investigations into allegations of torture and called on prosecutors to bring cases against those accused of torture.
The Committee against Torture of the UN Human Rights Council noted with concern in its August 6 report that, even though the government denied the existence of places of unofficial detention, the special rapporteur on torture was denied access to one of these places during his visit.
On June 15, a prisoner, Bouchama Ould Cheikh, committed suicide in his cell in Dar Naim prison to protest the bad conditions he experienced in the prison. The prison suffered from overcrowding and filth. The National Human Rights Commission and several international organizations described the conditions of prisoners as catastrophic.
According to the United Nations, two allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against peacekeepers from Mauritania reported in 2017 were pending. Both cases involved military personnel deployed in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic. One case alleged sexual abuse (sexual assault) involving a child. The other case alleged sexual exploitation (exploitative relationship). The United Nations repatriated the peacekeepers in question. Investigations by Mauritania were pending. One additional allegation reported in 2017 was substantiated with both the United Nations and Mauritania taking action against the perpetrators.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to overcrowding, food shortages, violence, inadequate sanitary conditions, and lack of medical care.
Physical Conditions: Prisons remained overcrowded. As of October the main civil prison in Nouakchott had a capacity of 350 inmates but held 943, of whom 460 were convicted prisoners and 483 pretrial detainees. Authorities frequently held pretrial detainees with convicted and often dangerous prisoners. Male guards frequently monitored female inmates in the women’s prison of Nouakchott, a practice criticized by the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH). Conditions of detention for women were generally better than for men. According to prison officials, the women’s prison in Nouakchott was less crowded.
Prison authorities kept a mixed population of prisoners in prison facilities throughout the country regardless of their sentences. Drugs were often trafficked among prisoners, which the government acknowledged was caused by lax security for visitors. Prisoners often rebelled and disobeyed authorities in protest against violence and inhuman treatment meted out by jailers. Poor security conditions and dangerous inmates sharing cells with less dangerous ones obliged prisoners to live in a climate of violence, and some had to pay bribes to other prisoners to avoid brutalization and harassment. Human rights groups continued to report prisons lacked adequate sanitation and medical facilities.
Local NGOs reported that in Dar Naim (largest prison in the country), inmates controlled one wing of the prison while staff secured the other half. Narcotics, weapons, and cash circulated freely because staff could not effectively screen what came into the prison and could not safely enter some areas.
The Mauritanian Human Rights Watch (MHRW) continued to denounce the poor conditions in prisons. There were two separate prisons for women, one in the capital, Nouakchott, and the other in the second largest city, Nouadhibou. Most supervisors were men; there was a severe shortage of female supervisors. Male guards provided security at women’s prisons because the all-male National Guard was assigned this task nationwide. There were some women supervisors in prisons, but they were not from the National Guard. An Italian NGO operated a detention center for minors, the only facility that came close to meeting international standards. These prisons were in addition to detention centers located in police stations throughout the country.
On September 3, the Directorate of Penal Affairs and Prison Administration reported that 77 children between the ages of 15 and 17 were in the Nouakchott Central Prison and seven in the prison in Nouadhibou. On October 3, a separate youth detention center opened, and it held 69 minors.
Authorities reported that 10 persons died in custody during the year. One death by suicide occurred inside the prison. All other cases involved chronic diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS. No families asked for an autopsy of their family members.
In December 2017 Salafist prisoners complained of mistreatment at the Central Civil Prison of Nouakchott, indicating the government prevented their families from visiting them. They also complained of malnutrition because of inadequate food. According to the MHRW, medical facilities and staff were similarly inadequate, particularly in the Dar Naim men’s prison and at the Central Prison. The government allocated a budget of 50 ouguiyas ($1.40) a day for each prisoner for food and medical supplies. Generalized corruption in the prison system, smuggling of medicines, and lack of skilled medical staff accounted for most deficiencies. Ventilation, lighting, and potable water in many cells and holding areas ranged from inadequate to nonexistent.
Administration: Authorities permitted prisoners to file allegations of abuse with the CNDH and MNP. Regulations also allowed inmates to choose one of their own to represent them in dealings with the administration, and prisoners occasionally made use of this opportunity. The government acknowledged allegations regarding inhuman conditions but rarely took corrective action.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison and detention center visits by NGOs, diplomats, and international human rights observers. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had unlimited access to prisons and conducted multiple visits, including visits to terrorism suspects. The partners to the Directorate of the Penal Affairs and Prison Administration, in particular the ICRC, Noura Foundation, and Caritas-Mauritania, contributed to the improvement of conditions in the detention centers under a partnership agreement with the administration. The ICRC helped to improve infrastructure, hygiene, and health conditions in detention centers and rehabilitated the sanitation network of the prison of Dar-Naim. It also implemented a program to combat malnutrition in prisons in Aleg and Dar-Naim by rehabilitating the kitchen facilities and periodically providing medicines and other hygiene products.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but authorities did not observe these prohibitions. A detainee has the ability to challenge the lawfulness of his or her detention before a court under two circumstances. If a person remains arrested after the end of his or her legal period of detention, the detainee has the right to complain before a court against the administration of the prison or the penitential authority that arrested the detainee. Second, if the detainee disagrees with his or her sentence, he or she has the right to file an appeal before a court of appeal or the Supreme Court.
In some cases authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained protesters, human rights activists, and journalists (see section 2.a.).
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
Under the Ministry of Interior and Decentralization, the National Police is responsible for enforcing the law and maintaining order in urban areas. The National Guard, under the same ministry, performs limited police functions in keeping with its peacetime role as the guarantor of physical security at government facilities, including prisons. For instance, regional authorities may call upon it to restore civil order during riots and other large-scale disturbances. The gendarmerie, a specialized paramilitary organization under the Ministry of Defense, is responsible for maintaining civil order around metropolitan areas and providing law enforcement services in rural areas. The Ministry of Interior and Decentralization’s newest police force, the General Group for Road Safety, maintains security on roads and operates checkpoints throughout the country.
Police and gendarmes were poorly paid, trained, and equipped. Corruption and impunity were serious problems. Police and gendarmes reportedly regularly sought bribes at nightly roadblocks in Nouakchott and at checkpoints between cities. There were numerous reports police at such roadblocks arbitrarily detained individuals, often without probable cause, for several hours or overnight.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law requires duly authorized arrest warrants, although their issuance was uncommon. Authorities generally did not inform detainees of the accusations against them until the conclusion of an investigation. The law requires that in most cases courts review the legality of a person’s detention within 48 hours of arrest, but police may extend the period for an additional 48 hours. On July 28, al-Akhbar, a news website, reported that the Committee against Torture in Geneva recommended the duration of police custody not exceed 48 hours. According to the committee, the nonworking days were not counted in the duration of police custody, thus often extending the period of detention. Under the law against terrorism, the duration of custody could reach 45 working days without possibility of challenge or appeal. The report noted that the records of detention in police stations were poorly maintained. Only after the prosecutor submits charges does a suspect have the right to contact an attorney. By law indigent defendants are entitled to an attorney at state expense, but frequently either legal representation was unavailable or attorneys did not speak a defendant’s language. There was a bail system, but judges sometimes refused such requests arbitrarily or set inordinately high bail.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were cases of arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists. Police arrested a number of human right activists and journalists without charge or hearings.
In November 2017 the Nouadhibou Court of Appeals ordered the release of Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheytir (MKheytir), a blogger who was sentenced to death in 2014 for apostasy after he allegedly posted statements on social media critical of the Prophet Mohammed. In March 2017 the Supreme Court ruled the court of appeals had improperly sentenced MKheytir to death for apostasy, since he had properly recanted his statements. Despite the appeals court’s release order, MKheytir remained in an unknown location, with the government citing concerns for his safety and public order if released.
In August the news website Tawary reported that authorities arrested and subsequently released two journalists, Babacar Baye N’Diaye from the news website Cridem and Mahmoudi Ould Saibott from the news website Taqadoum, following a defamation complaint by a Mauritanian lawyer based in Paris, Jamal Ould Mohamed, who was considered to be close to the government.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a problem, although no statistics on the average length of detention were available. Security force members sometimes arrested demonstrators and held them longer than regulations allow, often due to lack of capacity to process cases in a timely manner, or to obtain confessions. By law authorities may hold a minor for no more than six months while the detainee awaits trial. Nevertheless, there were reports many individuals, including minors, remained in pretrial detention for excessively long periods due to judicial inefficiency.
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary was not autonomous. The executive branch continued to exercise significant influence over the judiciary through its ability to appoint and remove judges. Observers often perceived many judges to be corrupt and unskilled.
The law provides for due process, and defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence. The law requires that authorities inform defendants of the charges against them, but the government did not normally respect this provision. Defendants did not often learn of the charges until the investigation was complete. Authorities generally provided defendants with free interpretation as required; however, the quality of these services was generally poor. Defendants have the right to a fair and public trial. They also have the right to be present during trial. All defendants, including the indigent, have the right to legal counsel, but authorities rarely respected this right. Likewise, defendants may confront or question witnesses and present witnesses and evidence in both civil and criminal cases. Defendants generally had adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants enjoy the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt and have the right of appeal. These rights extend to minorities and men but do not extend equally to women. Court proceedings are by law conducted in Arabic, and interpreters are not always available for those defendants who do not understand that language. Some bilingual judges speak with defendants in French.
Sharia is, in part, the basis for law and court procedures. Courts did not treat women equally with men in some cases.
A special court hears cases involving persons younger than age 18. Children who appeared before the court received more lenient sentences than adults and extenuating circumstances received greater consideration. The minimum age for a child to stand trial is 12 years. Several NGOs expressed concern regarding the holding of youthful offenders in the general population, including with more dangerous inmates, at Nouakchott Central Prison; however, these concerns were addressed when the new youth detention center opened in October.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
On August 15, al-Akhbar, a news website, reported that Amnesty International called on the authorities to stop pre-election arrests of journalists and opposition figures, including antislavery activists. The president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), Biram Dah Abeid, was arrested at his home on August 7. Biram was in the middle of his ultimately successful campaign for parliament. Abdallahi El Housein Messaoud, another member of the IRA, was questioned two days later. Biram Dah Abeid and Abdellahi El Houssein Messoud were arrested in connection with a complaint filed by a journalist accusing Biram of threatening him. Opposition political parties and several international and domestic organizations denounced Biram’s continued detention as politically motivated.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Complaints of human rights violations fall within the jurisdiction of the Administrative Court. Individuals or organizations may appeal decisions to international regional courts. NGO representatives stated they collaborated with the Administrative Court but added it was not impartial. There are administrative remedies through the social chamber of a court of appeals and the Supreme Court. Persons may sue at the Administrative Court and appeal to the court of appeals and then to the Supreme Court.
Real property ownership in the southern regions has been controversial since the government expelled tens of thousands of non-Arab sub-Saharans from communities based in the Senegal River Valley (Halpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) from 1989 to 1991 amid tensions with neighboring Senegal. Many non-Arabs were dispossessed of their land, which regional officials subsequently sold or ceded to Beydane (“Arabo-Berbers” or “White Moors” (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities)). Although the government continued to make modest efforts to indemnify returning deportees, it did not fully restore their property rights. The government reimbursed some in cash and provided jobs for others.
For example, in November 2017 the defense minister reaffirmed the government’s commitment to provide compensation to victims of the 1989-91 events. To this end, it allocated more than 124.3 million ouguiyas ($3.5 million) to fund pensions of soldiers who were expelled from the army from 1981 to 2004.
The constitution prohibits such actions, and there were no reports the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right; however, it sometimes arbitrarily and selectively applied regulations to suppress individuals or groups of individuals who opposed government policies. Individuals were generally free to criticize the government publicly or privately but were occasionally subject to retaliation. The constitution and law prohibit racial or ethnic propaganda. The government used these provisions against political opponents, accusing them of “racism” or “promoting national disunity” for speaking out against the extreme underrepresentation in government of Haratines and sub-Saharan Africans.
Freedom of Expression: There were no major restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression. Local NGOs and bloggers, among other observers, reported the government’s actions in recent years discredited its image and reputation. For example, it arrested journalists who were sympathizers to prominent government opposition figures.
On September 15, the news website al-Akhbar reported that police arrested several opposition bloggers and activists at the headquarters of the political party Tawassoul in the city of Zoueirate in the northern part of the country. Included in the arrests was a youth caravan coming from Nouakchott to support the opposition candidates.
Press and Media Freedom: Several independent daily publications generally expressed a wide variety of views with limited restrictions. Throughout the year incidents of government retaliation against media deemed too outspoken increased.
In June 2017 the National Assembly passed a bill imposing harsh penalties on journalists who publish “incendiary” articles. The law describes possible financial penalties for journalists publishing articles or statements that may, according to government, incite discrimination, hatred, violence, or insult based on origin, ethnicity, or nationality.
Independent media remained the principal source of information for most citizens, followed by government media. Government media focused primarily on official news but provided some coverage of opposition activities and views.
Violence and Harassment: On October 8, political parties from the hardline opposition, as well as many international and national organizations, denounced the government’s repression and harassment of the protests organized by the IRA.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Some opposition leaders asserted they had no effective access to official media. The government made payment of back taxes, at times unpaid for years with official complicity, a matter of priority, threatening the solvency of several independent stations.
In October 2017 Tele Diffusion Mauritania (TDM) briefly shut down five private television channels. TDM explained that its decision to suspend the private television stations’ operations was intended to force these outlets to pay their overdue royalties and broadcasting dues. TDM claimed to have made several attempts at finding an amicable solution but said they were either rebuffed or ignored by the owners of the private television stations.
On August 3, TDM again notified private channels and radio stations to pay their debts. According to the local press, TDM gave one week for these media outlets to settle, otherwise, they would be closed again. The media outlets did not pay, but they were not suspended.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, in 2017 approximately 21 percent of the population used the internet.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no reported government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly. Registered political parties are not required to seek permission to hold meetings or demonstrations. The law requires NGO organizers to apply to the local administrative chief for permission to hold large meetings or assemblies. Authorities usually granted permission but on some occasions denied it in circumstances that suggested the application of political criteria.
On several occasions officials with the IRA and other organizations reported security force members arrested their activists for failing to obtain the local prefect’s permission before holding a rally.
On August 29, the news website Sahara Media reported that police dispersed an opposition rally in Nouakchott in advance of the September elections. Police objected to the rally on the grounds of a complaint filed by Al-Najah Company, which owned the old airport (site of the rally). According to opposition leaders, they had previously received approval from the government to hold the rally.
After parliament opened on October 8, the IRA organized several largely peaceful protests against the continued detention of their leader and newly elected parliamentarian Biram Dah Abeid. Police response to some protests was violent.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally, but not in every instance, respected this right.
All local NGOs must register with the Ministry of Interior and Decentralization. Generally, if the ministry fails to respond within 45 days to a request to establish an NGO, the NGO may proceed with its work, although it was not considered officially registered.
Since 2014 Amnesty International documented 43 cases in which NGOs working in the human rights domain had not received a response from the government on their registration requests, meaning the NGOs were not authorized to operate in the country.
The government encouraged locally registered NGOs to join the government-sponsored Civil Society Platform. Approximately 6,000 local NGOs did so.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, but there were exceptions.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, vulnerable migrants, or other persons of concern. Resources provided by the government were inadequate to meet the assistance needs of these populations.
In-country Movement: Persons lacking identity cards could not travel freely in some regions. As in previous years, the government set up mobile roadblocks where gendarmes, police, or customs officials checked the papers of travelers.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR carries out refugee status determinations under its mandate and then presents cases to the National Consultative Commission for Refugees for recognition. The country hosted nearly 54,000 Malian refugees in the M’bera camp and continued to offer asylum to new refugee arrivals. The country also provided additional security in the camp to allow the Malian refugees to vote in the 2018 Malian presidential election.
In accordance with agreements with the Economic Community of West African States on freedom of movement, the government allows West Africans to remain in the country for up to three months, after which they must apply for residency or work permits. Authorities immediately deported migrants determined to be illegally seeking to reach Spain’s nearby Canary Islands.
The law allows children born outside the country to Mauritanian mothers and foreign men to obtain Mauritanian nationality at age 17. According to Article 15 of the code of nationality, as amended, children born to Mauritanian fathers and foreign mothers are automatically Mauritanian. If the father is stateless, children born outside the country are subject to statelessness until age 17, at which point the child is eligible for nationality. The unwillingness of local authorities to process thousands of sub-Saharan Africans who returned from Senegal, following their mass expulsion between 1989 and 1991, rendered the returnees stateless.