‘Modern pharaoh’: how Mauritania’s government uses precautionary detention to silence dissidents

Friday 19 April 201912:56 am

In the civil prison of the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott lie two prominent activists imprisoned for over two weeks without trial. Abderrahmane Weddady and Cheikh Ould Jiddou are some of Mauritania’s latest victims of “precautionary” or pre-trial detention, awaiting trial since March 27, after a judge ordered them detained pending further hearings.

The charge aimed at the two activists? “Vilification”. More specifically, Weddady and Jiddou were imprisoned after they shared a news piece (along with their thoughts) on a story which had been circulating across media outlets and social media platforms – claiming that the Dubai assets of the country’s president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, had been frozen.

In a March 22 statement, Mauritania’s public prosecutor denied the charge, claiming that the story of frozen illicit funds was false, and announcing that the public prosecution would investigate individuals who it charged were intentionally disseminating false information. Nonetheless, only Wedaddy and Jiddou were arrested, provoking a wave of criticism and protest.

Subsequently, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Mauritanian authorities to release the two activists, declaring that they were “detained because of their peaceful expression.” Similarly, Reports Without Borders (RSF) condemned the arrest of the two bloggers, and called on the Mauritanian regime to cease its pursuit of them.

Domestically, too, the arrests of Wedaddy and Jiddou prompted messages of solidarity from various political parties and prominent rights’ figures, including former presidential candidate and legal activist, Biram Ould Dah Abeid. On April 1, a demonstration was further held in front of the Nouakchott prison holding Weddady and Jiddou, organised by ‘Les Libertés en Mauritanie’ (Freedom in Mauritania) campaign and bringing together political activists, rights’ advocates, journalists and ordinary citizens. A second protest was organised by residents two days later.

Jiddou is a Francophone writer and regular online blogger, as well as a legal expert and activist. Weddady is a former journalist, previously editor-in-chief of the renowned online newspaper Taqaddumi – and currently works as a building contractor, while continuing to write regularly on Mauritania’s political and social issues.

The two activists were summoned on March 7 by the ‘Economic Crimes’ department of the national police, and were interrogated on their writings about the president’s alleged bank accounts. Police subsequently confiscated their national ID cards and passports, and on March 22, summoned them again – this time, placing them under arrest, and searching their homes three days later.

Why were Weddady and Jiddou arrested?

The arrests of the two activists and their ongoing case has provoked much clamour and controversy in the North African country. Activist and wife of Weddady, Malika Mohammed Lamine, spoke to Raseef22 about the reasons behind her husband’s detention.

“Abderrahmane was officially imprisoned because of a Facebook post, but in reality he is imprisoned because of his political activism and exposing [President] Aziz’s family being implicated in the biggest fraud scheme in the history of Mauritania.”

“Abderrahmane was officially imprisoned because of a Facebook post,” she said. “But in reality he is imprisoned because of his political activism and exposing [President] Aziz’s family being implicated in the biggest fraud scheme in the history of Mauritania.”

Here, Lamine was referring to what has become known in the country as the “Cheikh Reda case”: a scandal centring around a sheikh (a tribal or religious notable) who has for the past few years been buying homes from Mauritanian citizens at high prices without paying for the properties upfront, and instead promising their owners that they would be reimbursed after a certain period of time, only for ‘Cheikh Rida’ to proceed to sell the properties at a lower price to other parties.

His activities would in time lead accumulating a debt of 70 billion Mauritanian Ouguiya ($194 million USD), according to estimates by experts following his case. Cheikh Rida is today unable to repay his debts, leading to homes being lost and the formation of a large social movement bearing his name: “The movement of Cheikh Rida’s creditors.”

The movement is estimated to include 8,000 Mauritanian families, and some of his victims would attend a solidarity protest condemning the arrests of Weddady and Jiddou.

Lamine, the activist, said: “Regarding [President] Aziz’s frozen billions, Abderrahmane commented like others around him, and he wasn’t the first one, on a circulated news piece about the freezing of Ould Abd Aziz’s assets in Dubai, but the authorities detained him and Cheikh Ould Jiddou and not anyone else, and I have no explanation for this except that it is a punishment for his opposition and exposure of Aziz’s corruption and his dissemination of documents that prove the implication of Aziz’s family in the Cheikh Rida Case.”

It should be noted that Weddady had previously shared documents demonstrating that President Aziz’s son, Ahmed, had been implicated in the purchase of many homes at a low price from Cheikh Rida.

“The proceedings of the case prove that the issue is nothing more than a settling of scores with political opponents, ever since the first day of arrest,” Lamine added. “The charges aimed at them are in contravention of the law.”

Lamine alleged that Mauritanian authorities have been “preventing the defence team from obtaining the case file to follow it until this very day, in the midst of ongoing talk of secret evidence that condemns Abderrahmane.”

Lamine said she was surprised at the way “Boham” – Weddady’s nickname – was arrested, as well as the confiscation of his identification papers, adding: “His lawyers are being prevented from communicating with him and he is being interrogated in the weekend without the presence of his lawyer; he is charged by the prosecutor with defamation despite this charge being overused and not applicable in the first place to the case of Weddady and Cheikh Jiddou, but it applies to those civil society organisations that called for opening an investigation in the [corruption] case with the relevant authorities.”

Furthermore, Lamine said that her home was raided and searched on March 25 after Weddady had been arrested after the summons by the Economic Crimes Police. The purportedly anti-corruption department, she said, “should [instead] summon Cheikh Ridda and his people, those responsible for the biggest financial scandal, instead of providing him with guards at the expense of the state’s budget.”

Lamine also said her husband’s detention may be illegal.

“Abderrahmane and Cheikh Ould Jiddou have been placed under precautionary detention, despite the fact that precautionary detention in an objective legal framework cannot be considered a punishment for a crime,” she said.

Ultimately, her husband’s ordeal has become commonplace in Mauritania, which is ostensibly a democracy.

“This wretched regime has made us accustomed to the violation of laws and human rights, the confiscation of freedoms, and the throwing of its opponents and the voices which expose its corruption in prisons,” she said.

Yakub Ould al-Saif, a lawyer and professor of public freedoms and human rights at the Faculty of Law in the University of Nouakchott, told Raseef22: “Their targeting is not about what they said on the frozen assets’ case; this always happens, every opponent [of a regime] says that the state has engaged in looting, so there is nothing new in the matter, and so this targeting is about matters which involve the authority itself.”

In al-Saif’s legal opinion, the questioning of Weddady and Jiddou “is firstly meaningless and [constitutes] targeting outside of the law, and the procedure which was followed was invalid.”

“The public prosecution has taken up an investigation of a subject which is not its concern; they [Weddady and Jiddou] shouldn’t be questioned or detained, and if they are detained then the issue relates to a misdemeanour and does not require precautionary detention,” he said. “There are no dangerous incidents in their cases and there is no fear of them escaping, and so the conditions for precautionary detention are absent, and the [premeditated] plotting and targeting are obvious.”

Turning precautionary detention into a punishment

The cases of Jiddou and Weddady brought back to Mauritanian memories a host of similar events in the country’s recent history, whereby political opponents have been arrested and imprisoned without trial or legitimate legal procedures.

Such measures have not only been targeted at ‘lower-level’ activists and figures, but have also encompassed major personalities such as former senator Mohamed Ould Ghadda – who spent more than a year in ‘precautionary detention’ without trial, an event which was repeated in the case of politician Biram Dah Abeid, who spent five months in prison under precautionary detention, along with others.

According to Nouakchott professor Ould al-Saif, the Law of Criminal Procedure regulates the practice of ‘precautionary detention’ and stipulates clear parameters for its exercise. Al-Saif told Raseef22 that not every accusation requires the accused to be detained precautionarily; rather, such a measure applies only if there is a legitimate fear that the accused conceals evidence – or is likely to escape or commit further crimes.

Moreover, al-Saif noted that an individual is entitled to request their temporary freedom before a final judgement is passed – in the medium-term, an individual “enters procedures and not punishment, for the punishment is what a judge orders after an accused appeals.”

“What happened in Mauritania is that they removed precautionary detention from its procedural nature, and so it became a punishment applied by the state to the people,” he said.

Al-Saif said there were few precedents to the Mauritanian government’s actions other than the measures taken by the biblical Pharaoh.

“And so every person who enrages Pharoah or the political regime is detained precautionarily, with precautionary here becoming part of the Penal Code,” he said.

This legal reality has worried many Mauritanian lawyers and rights’ advocates. Weddady and Jiddou’s lawyer, Brahim Ould Ebaty, said: “In the current course of the Mauritanian judiciary, the lack of independence of the investigating judges from the public prosecution can be noticed, and the public prosecution is merely a tail [appendage] of the Justice Minister who is a member of the executive branch, and thus the freedom of trial judges is very limited, if not non-existent.”

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