Beirut — Mauritania's first presidential transition in a decade has raised hope that the new head of state, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, will ensure human rights protections for all Mauritanians, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020. Ould Ghazouani should prioritize repealing repressive laws that curb freedom of expression, ensure women's rights, and instruct security forces to respect the right to demonstrate peacefully.
Under the outgoing president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, authorities used laws on criminal defamation and the counterterrorism law to prosecute and jail human rights defenders, activists, social media activists, and political dissidents. Two bloggers, Abderrahmane Weddady and Cheikh Ould Jiddou, were detained for three months for social media posts criticizing corruption in Mauritania before charges against them were dropped.
"Mauritania's Ould Ghazouani should prioritize long-overdue reform of a harsh penal code that allows the death penalty in blasphemy cases and that is effectively used to muzzle speech," said Eric Goldstein, acting executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. "The new president should also take decisive steps to ensure that women and girls who are survivors of violence have the support they need to move on with their lives."
In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing's actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.
The penal code stipulates the death penalty for blasphemy. On July 29, 2019 - four days before Ould Ghazouani's inauguration - the authorities freed Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, a blogger who had been imprisoned in a blasphemy case for five-and-a-half years; a court initially sentenced him to death. Although an appeals court reduced the sentence to two years in prison, authorities held him in solitary and arbitrary detention for an additional 21 months, ostensibly for his own protection. Upon his release, Ould Mkhaitir immediately sought asylum in France.
Mauritania should revoke criminal defamation and blasphemy laws and work towards abolishing the death penalty in all cases, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty.
In October 2019, police violently dispersed student demonstrations taking place in Nouakchott against a rule that prevented students who had reached the age of 25 from enrolling for the first time in public universities. In November, the government suspended this discriminatory rule.
Under current legislation, all sexual relations outside of marriage are criminalized and there is no law against gender-based violence, despite a high prevalence of such violence in Mauritania. Women and girls face many barriers to accessing justice. For example, those who report rape risk prosecution for sexual relations outside of marriage (also known as zina) if they cannot prove that the sex was not consensual.
The government should cease prosecutions and detentions in so-called zina cases, decriminalize the offense, and adopt a law on gender-based violence in line with international standards, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should also establish specialized prosecutorial units to assist victims of gender-based violence, ensure greater access to medical care, and provide direct support services to survivors.