3 December 2008

Mauritania: 'Chains Are Jewellery for Men'

Dakar — Mauritania's security forces are again accused of routine and systematic torture of political opponents and Islamists accused of links with international terrorist groups. A report released by Amnesty International today details cruel violations of human rights, poor prison conditions and a judicial system that offers little protection.

One detainee -- accused of membership of a terrorist organisation -- told a visiting Amnesty International delegation in February this year how security officers tortured him into coma.

"They forced me to bend double, got hold of my hands and legs, and joined them under the knees at the height of the shin. They tied them together with handcuffs, then placed an iron bar under my knees and suspended me from the ceiling. They then hit me with sticks and truncheons. I regularly lost consciousness in this position."

Elsewhere Amnesty found evidence of torture techniques like sleep deprivation, cigarette burns, electric shocks and suspension from metal bars.

The report corroborates earlier complaints of the use of torture to extract confessions. Speaking to IPS from Nouakchott, Lala Mint Sidi, whose brother Sidina Ould Abdurrahman has been in detention since 2007, said her brother and his co-detainees were forced to sign statements that had been written in French, even though they do not understand the language.

"During one of their court appearances, my brother showed me laceration marks all over his back which he said he sustained during torture on him." she said.

Since February of this year Lala Mint Sidi and other women whose sons and closed relatives were arrested on terror charges have been staging daily protests at the Supreme Court building in Nouakchott demanding the release of their sons.

Sidi's brother is accused of being a member of a terrorist group calling itself Al-Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), but better known in its previous incarnation as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which has been attacking security installations and conducting deadly suicide bombings in cities across Algeria.

Since 2007, Mauritania has seen an increase in attacks on security forces and foreign tourists attributed to AQMI.

Mauritania's security forces have responded with raisds on mosques and madrassas belonging to radical Islamists opposed to Nouakchott's foreign policy direction, especially its strong ties to the United States and Israel.

Apart from the systematic torture of detainees, AI also discovered appalling prison conditions in Mauritania. At one prison in the capital, AI's visiting delegation found dozens of men pressed up against each other in one cell in stifling heat. The prisoners claimed they were not allowed to leave their cells or breathe fresh air for months or even years at a time.

One of the report's authors, Gaetan Mootoo, said, "In some prisons, we could not even get into the cells due to the excessive number of inmates and the stench of these cells, which were infested with vermin and ridden with fleas, was indescribable."

State repression attracts little open criticism inside Mauritania. Seyid Ould Seyid, professor of English at the Nouakchott University and blogger says Mauritanians hardly speak openly about state repression because of their strict cultural and Islamic upbringing.

"Most ordinary Mauritanians are brought up to show total respect and obedience to political authority. It is an acceptable norm in this country that those accused of disturbing the peace have to be punished to serve as a deterrent to others. And successive governments in Mauritania have been using the silence of the people to continue to visit unimaginable cruelty on those perceived as terrorists and trouble makers," he said.

Social critic Abass Braham says security forces act with impunity not only because of the backing they receive from the state but also because in some cases the society and the families accept that the victims deserve the punishment.

"Because of the nature of our society no family wants to be humiliated, so sometimes the government deliberately puts undue pressure on families of those accused of trying to harm the Mauritanian society. This can sometimes be devastating... and it is worse when you are from a more conservative family, because you can be left alone to prove your innocence."

The courts, which should be a bastion of hope for those in trouble with the law, are also seen as enablers of the pervasive human rights abuse in Mauritania. Amnesty's delegation recounts how several soldiers accused of an attempted coup d'etat in December 2004 were brought to court wearing handcuffs and with chains on their feet. When their lawyers complained, the presiding judge's response was that "chains are jewellery for men".

According to AI, the court also refused to investigate the complaints of torture, even though some of the prisoners at the hearing bore visible signs of violence.

Earlier this year, the ousted government of Mauritania transferred the trial of suspected AQMI members to a hurriedly-built prison in a military barracks to, the government claims, "prevent the suspects from escaping."

But the president of the Bar Association of Mauritania, Ahmed Ould Yusuf Ould Sheikh Sidna, believes the government was motivated by other reasons. He told IPS that when it comes to terror suspects, all legal procedures are ignored.

"Whenever a lawyer files a petition with the courts concerning allegations of torture, you are most likely going to have a ruling delivered against you," Sidna said.

"Since the relocation of those accused of terrorist attacks in Mauritania to inside the military barracks, defense lawyers have had immense difficulty gaining access to their clients. And you cannot know what the military is doing with the detainees in these barracks, since normal prison rules do not seem to apply anymore."

"Torture," writes Amnesty's Mootoo, "is deeply anchored in the culture of the security forces, which act with complete impunity. It is a scourge condoned by state authorities at the highest level."

*IPS was unable to get comment on the latest allegations of human rights abuses from the Mauritanian government at the time of publication.

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