Tunis — Mauritanian authorities should free two bloggers arrested on March 22, 2019, and drop all charges related to their peaceful expression, Human Rights Watch said today. The bloggers, Abderrahmane Weddady and Cheikh Ould Jiddou, are known for writing critically about Mauritania's leaders, including about specific allegations of wrongdoing by President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
Prosecutorial authorities said on the day of the arrests that they were investigating people for knowingly disseminating false news. On March 27, a prosecutor in Nouakchott, the capital, accused Weddady and Ould Jiddou of defamation and a judge sent them to prison pending further hearings, said Brahim Ebaty, one of the men's lawyers.
"This is clearly a case of shoot-the-messenger," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "A country that considers itself democratic should not send people to jail for publishing information in the public interest, no matter how disputed or contentious."
Weddady is a building contractor, former journalist, and former activist with the opposition Rally of Democratic Forces party, and lives in Nouakchott. His Facebook page has a large following, family members said.
Since 2016, Weddady has investigated and written about an alleged scheme to fraudulently acquire ownership of property from thousands of Mauritanians to resell it, Weddady's brother Nasser told Human Rights Watch. The scheme's authors are reputedly close to political leaders in the country.
Ould Jiddou, also of Nouakchott, is a legal consultant, former opposition party activist, and government critic chiefly via his Facebook page, said his wife, Zainab Mint Bally. He has also written on his page about the alleged property scam, she said.
In recent weeks, claims have spread online and in Arabic-language media about allegedly ill-gotten wealth of Mauritanian origin, held in a Dubai bank and frozen by Emirati authorities, Nasser Weddady said. Family members of both bloggers said they wrote about the issue on their Facebook pages.
In early March, Mauritanian media reported that the economic crimes branch of the national police were opening an investigation of the claims, and intended to question journalists and bloggers, including Weddady and Ould Jiddou.
On March 7, economic crimes police summoned Weddady and Ould Jiddou to their headquarters, questioned them about their writing on the alleged bank accounts, and confiscated their national ID cards and passports, said family members and Mohamed Ould Moine, a Nouakchott lawyer representing both men.
On March 22, economic crimes police again summoned the men and arrested them, family members and Ould Moine said. Mauritania's prosecutorial authorities said in a statement the same day that Mauritanian authorities had determined that the story of frozen illicit funds was untrue, and would investigate people it accused of knowingly spreading false information.
Mauritanian authorities use laws on criminal defamation, spreading "false information," terrorism, cybercrime, and blasphemy to prosecute and jail human rights defenders, activists, bloggers, and political dissidents. They also have a history of keeping government critics in limbo through long periods of pretrial detention, judicial control, and, in the case of another blogger, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, once sentenced to death for blasphemy, extrajudicial detention.
Ould Moine said on March 25 that he had been allowed to visit the men daily at the economic crimes police headquarters for a few minutes, but not in private. That evening, police turned up without warning at both men's homes and searched them, family members said.
Mint Bally told Human Rights Watch that three policemen in civilian clothes arrived late in the evening with Ould Jiddou, searched their bedroom, and left. Meanwhile, three carloads of police took Weddady to his parents' home in a quest for his house keys, which they finally obtained by summoning one of his brothers by phone. They searched Weddady's house and confiscated his computer and monitor, said his wife, Melika Mohamed Lemin.
On March 26, authorities transferred the men to a police station, said Mint Bally, who said she visited the station that evening and was permitted to speak briefly, but not privately, with both men.
On March 27, a prosecutor at the West Nouakchott courthouse questioned the men about their writing about the alleged UAE moneyand accused them of defamation under article 348 of Mauritania's penal code, which provides for punishment of six months to five years in prison, said Ebaty, who attended the hearing. A judge questioned the men on the same issue and returned them to detention pending a further hearing, Ebaty said. As of March 28 they were held in Nouakchott's central prison, he said.
"Mauritanian authorities should immediately free these two bloggers, who are clearly being held for their peaceful expression," Whitson said. "The way to examine claims of defamation is through a civil lawsuit before an independent court, not a criminal trial."