Tunis — Mauritanian authorities have detained an opposition leader for two months on vague corruption charges, Human Rights Watch said today. They should free the opposition leader, Mohamed Ould Ghadda, or grant him a prompt and fair trial, if they have sufficient evidence to try him for a recognizable criminal offense.
Mauritanian officials arrested Ghadda on August 10, 2017, five days after Mauritanians voted in a referendum to dissolve the country's Senate, of which Ghadda was a member. Ghadda was an outspoken opponent of that vote, which the opposition characterized as a move by President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to consolidate power and possibly prepare constitutional changes that would permit him to serve beyond his current, second term in office.
"The longer Mohamed Ould Ghadda is held without the court clarifying the charges against him, the more this case appears to be about silencing opposition to the president rather than about delivering justice," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
A judge is investigating Ghadda on charges of corruption of a state public servant under the 2016 Law to Combat Corruption, article 3, his lawyer, Ahmed Salem Bouhoubeyni, told Human Rights Watch. The Law to Combat Corruption provides a prison sentence from 10 to 20 years for an elected official who offers or accepts a bribe. Ghadda's only appearance in court so far, on August 31, was a preliminary one, at which the judge did not question him on the substance of the case. He has been interrogated about financial support he allegedly received from Mohamed Bouamatou, a Mauritanian pro-opposition businessman and philanthropist.
Three weeks after Ghadda's arrest, authorities also summoned and interrogated 12 other senators, four independent journalists, and two union leaders. Many of the questions concerned alleged financing by Bouamatou, said reports in Le Courrier du Nord, Radio France International, and Le 360 Afrique. The courts placed them all under judicial supervision pending possible charges, requiring them to check in weekly with the police and preventing them from leaving the country.
As part of the same corruption investigation, a Mauritanian prosecutor on September 1 issued an international arrest warrant for corruption against Bouamatou and one of his business associates, Mohamed Ould Debbagh, who are both currently exiled in Morocco.
Ghadda remained in pre-arraignment detention for three weeks before seeing a judge for the first time, Bouhoubeyni told Human Rights Watch. Ghadda had no access to his lawyer for the first 10 days. Mauritania's penal code requires releasing anyone arrested from police custody within 48 hours, and in cases brought under the Law to Combat Corruption, 48 hours renewable for the same period of time up to three times with the prosecutor general's written authorization.
The judge at the August 31 hearing decided to move forward with the corruption investigation, Bouhoubeyni told Human Rights Watch. Since then, the judge has not summoned Ghadda again for questioning, in spite of the penal code requirements for a prompt trial when a defendant is held in pretrial detention.
On September 16, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Mauritanian Minister of Justice Brahim Ould Daddah to raise concerns about Ghadda's detention, but Mauritanian authorities did not to respond to Human Rights Watch inquiries.
Early in 2017, Abdel Aziz proposed constitutional amendments that would dissolve the Senate and establish regional councils, along with other symbolic measures. The National Assembly, the lower house of Mauritania's bicameral parliament, approved the amendments. But when the Senate - the upper house - rejected them last March, with Ghadda leading the opposition, Abdel Aziz announced that he would submit the defeated reforms to a national referendum. At the time, Ghadda headed a Senate committee that monitored government contracts.
Abdel Aziz defended the initiative, calling the Senate "useless and too costly" and claiming that replacing it with "more local" forms of law-making would improve governance.
Much of the political opposition denounced the proposed move as a step toward eliminating presidential term limits in the constitution before the next presidential election in 2019.
During the two weeks before the referendum, security forces in the capital Nouakchott, repeatedly used force against peaceful protesters, who gathered in various locations each afternoon to protest holding the referendum, four protesters told Human Rights Watch in separate phone interviews. Ghadda was among those injured when security forces cleared protests on July 27.
"The marches were very peaceful," said Ahmed Jedou, a Mauritanian journalist who participated in the protests. "Police responded violently to people simply shouting slogans against the constitutional referendum and governmental corruption."
On August 3, in his last speech two days before the referendum, Abdel Aziz accused senators opposed to his proposed reforms of being "traitors" who "take money from businessmen to undermine the institutions of the country."
Meanwhile, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concern about the handling of the demonstrations. "The authorities reportedly did not respond to the majority of requests for authorization for the protests and actively dispersed gatherings," said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN agency.
"In several cases, protest leaders were reportedly beaten up and a number of them were arrested."
The referendum was approved by 85 percent of those voting, with a participation rate of 53.73 percent of eligible voters, according to official figures.
Under Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Mauritania in 2004, anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge, and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time, or to release. Article 14 of the Covenant provides that anyone facing a criminal charge is entitled to a hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal without undue delay. The African Commission's Principles and Guidelines on the right to a fair trial and legal assistance in Africa sets similar standards for a fair and speedy trial.
"The longer the jailing of Ghadda continues without a judicial process that is fair and transparent, the more his case appears to be part of a power play to blunt opposition to the president," Whitson said.