Mauritania

Last Updated 25 September 2020

Mauritania bridges the Arab Maghreb and western sub-Saharan Africa.

Mauritanian society is rigidly caste-based. The Beidane, who are of Arab-Berber origin, are politically and socially dominant, while the Haratine remain the most economically and politically marginalized group1https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/mauritania/session_23_-_november_2015/unpo_upr23_mrt_e_main.pdf. Many Haratine in Mauritania are enslaved, and those who are free face discrimination and are ostracized from politics and society. Other ethnic groups are of sub-Saharan origin, and include the Peulh and Toucouleur, Soninké, and Wolof peoples2https://minorityrights.org/country/mauritania/.

Slavery is a major human rights issue and is socially justified with reference to an interpretation of Islam. Mauritania is a member of the League of Arab States and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
 
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The preamble of Mauritania’s 1991 Constitution3https://adsdatabase.ohchr.org/IssueLibrary/MAURITANIA_Constitution.pdf declares a “right to equality” and the “fundamental freedoms and rights of human beings”; Article 1 of the Constitution notes that, “the Republic guarantees equality before the law to all of its citizens without distinction as to origin, race, sex, or social condition”. However, the constitution and other laws and policies restrict freedom of religion or belief. The Constitution defines the country as Islamic, recognising Islam as the only religion of its citizens, with Islam as “the religion of the people and the state”.

The Constitutional Council, the High Council of Magistrates and the President are required, when taking an oath of office, to make a promise to God to uphold the law of the land in conformity with Islamic precepts.

The law and legal procedures of Mauritania are based on Sharia. Sharia crimes such as heresy, apostasy, atheism, refusal to pray, adultery and alcoholism are all contained in Mauritania’s Penal Code4https://acjr.org.za/resource-centre/penal-code-of-mauritania/view (in French). The Code includes punishments of lapidation, amputation and lashings. Sharia norms are also reflected in Mauritania’s 2001 Personal Status Code (a legal code which regulates all matters related to marriage, divorce, family and inheritance issues). Article 311 states that for difficulties of interpretation as well as in cases where the Code is silent, reference should be made to Sharia5http://www.justice.gov.mr//IMG/pdf/statutpersonnelarabe.pdf.

Education and children’s rights

Both public school and private secondary schools require students to attend four hours a week of Islamic instruction6https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/MAURITANIA-2019-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf.

Family, community and society

Non-Muslims are restricted from having citizenship status. Muslims who convert from Islam lose their citizenship and property rights. Non-Muslims are only allowed to gather and worship (even in private) after they are granted permission to do so from the state7https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/MAURITANIA-2019-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf.

Slavery

Despite a 1981 law abolishing slavery in Mauritania, and its criminalization in 2007, the Global Slavery Index estimates that two percent of the population, or 90,000 Mauritanians, are currently enslaved8https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/data/country-data/mauritania/. Those in slavery come from the Haratine ethnic group, who were historically enslaved and “inherited” by slave-owning families from one generation to the next.

The government has been reluctant to admit that slavery exists in the country, let alone to seriously tackle it, as its persecution of anti-slavery activists demonstrates. There have only been two successful prosecutions of slave owners in Mauritania’s history9https://www.antislavery.org/big-win-mauritania-slavery/ This is partly due to the requirement that former enslaved individuals (who are often illiterate and with no educational background) must file legal complaints themselves to trigger prosecution, and NGOs are not allowed to bring cases on their behalf10https://unpo.org/members/13228; https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/mauritania/session_23_-_november_2015/unpo_upr23_mrt_e_main.pdf.

Cultural and systematic racism against Afro-Mauritanians is a major reason why the practice of slavery has survived for so long. Another factor is the centuries of tradition which justify the practice, and the influence of religion. Local Islamic leaders have historically spoken in favor of slavery, advocating for those who are enslaved to submit to their masters in order to ascend to heaven, in a distortion of the teachings of the Qu’ran11http://www.glimpsefromtheglobe.com/regions/middle-east-and-north-africa/the-disastrous-implications-of-modern-day-slavery-in-mauritania/.

Even when freed, Haratines face ongoing discrimination and marginalization across Mauritanian society, and are often denied access to education, jobs, and political representation12https://unpo.org/members/13228.

Gender equality and harmful traditional practices

Traditional and harmful practices, including early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) continue to be used against women and girls in Mauritania, especially in remote areas in the south of the country13https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/54bce7604.pdf.

A lack of laws on gender-based violence and of institutions to provide assistance to victims, along with social pressures and stigma, act as barriers to women enjoying their rights. For example, women who report rape to the police can be prosecuted and charged for “zina” (or adultery),14https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/09/05/they-told-me-keep-quiet/obstacles-justice-and-remedy-sexual-assault-survivors which is punishable by the death penalty under Article 306 of Penal Code15https://acjr.org.za/resource-centre/penal-code-of-mauritania/@@download/file/Mauritania%20Penal%20Code%201983.pdf. The Mauritanian Association for the Health of the Mother and Child reports that adultery offences are the most common cause of incarceration for women in Mauritania, with most of these women in fact being victims of rape themselves16https://fr.reuters.com/article/us-mauritania-women-sexcrimes-idUSKCN1N40FU.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression both for individuals and for the press are severely compromised in Mauritania.

Apostasy, blasphemy, “adultery”, and homosexuality are among the capital crimes in Mauritania, as well as terrorism.

Mandatory death for “apostasy” and “blasphemy”

Article 306 of the Mauritanian Penal Code, stipulates apostasy as a crime punishable by death17https://acjr.org.za/resource-centre/penal-code-of-mauritania/@@download/file/Mauritania%20Penal%20Code%201983.pdf.

Until 2018, anyone found guilty of converting from Islam was supposed to be given three days to repent and so receive a lesser sentence or be released without conviction. If they did not repent, an individual might face confiscation of their property, or the death sentence. However, despite “repenting”, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkheitir (see “Highlighted cases” below) was found guilty of “apostasy” and sentenced to death, in a one-day trial in late December 2014. His case has been a major focus of Islamist demands and debate within Mauritania since 2014.

The case also appears to have brought about a change in the law – for the worse.

In 2018, Mauritania enacted a law which makes the death sentence for apostasy compulsory, as well as upgrading blasphemy to a capital offence and making that compulsory as well.

The amendment to Article 306 of the Penal Code now states that the death penalty will be applied to “every Muslim, man or woman, who ridicules or insults Allah”, his messenger, his teachings, or any of his prophets, “even if [the accused] repents”18aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/mauritania-strengthens-blasphemy-law-blogger-case-171122163349451.html.

The law also provides for a sentence of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 600,000 Ouguiyas (approximately EUR 13,804) for “offending public indecency and Islamic values”, or “breaching Allah’s prohibitions” or assisting in their breach.

There appears to have been a moratorium on the death sentence since 1987. However, at the end of 2019, at least 123 individuals in Mauritania remained on death row19https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/ACT5018472020ENGLISH.PDF.

“Spreading atheism”

It has been observed that the charge of “spreading atheism” has been used not only to silence writers and activists but for political means also. A number of left-wing activists and writers have highlighted what they see as a systematic campaign which accuses them of spreading atheism. In 2014, it was reported that the Supreme Council for Fatwa and Grievances had issued a statement calling on activists on social media to “stop offending Islam and the Prophet and spreading atheism”20https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/culture/2014/01/mauritania-religious-crisis-accusations-apostasy.html#.

Press freedom and harassment of activists

Press freedom is guaranteed by the constitution. However, in reality, privately run newspapers face closure for publishing material considered offensive to Islam or threatening to the state. Self-censorship is also practised by journalists to some degree, when they cover issues relating to Sharia or slavery, for example, and activists against slavery have been frequently harassed and persecuted21iheu.org/iheu-calls-on-un-to-do-more-to-protect-mauritanian-anti-slavery-campaigners/.

The government uses repressive legislation that includes criminal defamation, broad definitions of terrorism and “inciting racial hatred” to censor and prosecute human rights defenders, activists, bloggers, and political dissidents22https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/statement-report/upr-submission-mauritania-2020. The 2016 Cybercrime Law23http://www.ictpolicyafrica.org/fr/document/a74yc6lf0v?page=1 provides for prison sentences and fines for disseminating politically sensitive content over the internet, and is used in practice to censor government critics.

Following the presidential elections in June 2019, large scale opposition protests were repressed, and the Interior Ministry announced that security forces had arrested 100 protesters24https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/mauritania. Protesters were accused of being foreign agents with intentions of destabilising the country25https://www.lepoint.fr/monde/mauritanie-l-opposition-denonce-un-etat-de-siege-26-06-2019-2321266_24.php, and the government imposed an internet blackout for 11 days after the election to shut down online political commentary on the election26https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/AFR3806942019ENGLISH.pdf.

The government makes use of arbitrary arrests in order to intimidate, harass and instill fear of reprisal against human rights activists. In July 2019, the government arbitrarily arrested and detained the following individuals, amongst others:  Ahmedou Ould Wediaa (a prominent anti-slavery activist, journalist and member of the opposition party (Tawassoul), he was arbitrarily detained for 12 days), Camara Seydi Moussa (journalist known for his criticism of the government, released after being arbitrarily detained for one week by police), Yahya Sy (human rights activist detained for 6 days without charge), Cheikhna Mohamed Lemine Cheikh (anti-slavery campaigner, arrested on June 24 and released on 2 July), Moussa Camara (journalist, arbitrarily detained for one week after being accused of questioning the election result), and Samba Thiam (politician and anti-discrimination activist who was arrested and detained for a week following a Facebook post where he questioned “the fairness of the electoral process” and commented on the mobilization of the Afro-Mauritanian community. He was forced to sign a statement that he would “cease activities leading to extremism and violence”)27https://minorityrights.org/2019/07/15/mauritania-crackdown-activists/; https://www.ecoi.net/en/document/2028282.html.

Highlighted cases

In late December 2014, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkheitir was sentenced to death for “apostasy”. As a 28-year-old blogger, he had been arrested in January 2014, for allegedly publishing an article seen by some as insulting Muhammad and constituting an act of apostasy. His writing in fact sought to highlight the indentured servitude in Mauritanian society, often socially justified with reference to national cultural identity and in particular to Islamic tradition.28iheu.org/iheu-condemns-death-sentence-for-apostasy-handed-to-writer-in-mauritania/

Following Mkheitir’s initial arrest, there were a number of protests condemning his writing. There were numerous calls, including by imams, scholars and professors, for his execution. One preacher, Abi Ould Ali, offered EUR 4,000 to anyone who killed Mkheitir. The Mauritanian government and opposition parties supported the protests. President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said, “We will apply God’s law on whoever insults the prophet, and whoever publishes such an insult.”

After his death sentence was handed down in December 2014, there were again popular celebrations. Jemil Ould Mansour, leader of Mauritanian Islamist party Tawassoul, welcomed the conviction, saying that Mkheitir had got “the fate he deserves”29bvoltaire.fr/philippe-franceschi/peut-sauver-mohamed-cheikh-ould-mkheitir,149711.

In early November 2017, Mkheitiir’s sentence was reduced by an appeals court in Nouadhibou, to two years imprisonment. Having already served four years he was due to be released. The re-sentencing was followed once again by riotous demonstrations calling for Mkhetitir’s execution30washingtonpost.com/world/africa/mauritania-blogger-sentenced-to-death-is-released-on-appeal/2017/11/09/00573942-c565-11e7-9922-4151f5ca6168_story.html?utm_term=.5d2f6adbd727; aa.com.tr/en/africa/security-disperse-protests-in-mauritanian-capital/962148.

Despite the reduction of his sentence, it was not until July 2019, in the final days of the presidency of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, that Mkheitir was actually freed from detention and was enabled to flee abroad31humanists.international/2019/08/mohamed-cheikh-ould-mkhaitir-freed-after-6-years-in-detention/.

In February 2020, 14 human rights defenders were arbitrarily detained after hosting an “unauthorised meeting” in a guesthouse. 10 activists were subsequently accused of ‘belonging to a group that promotes secularism’ and three of the activists – Outhmane Boubacar, Abderahmane Haddad and Ahmed Mouhamed Moukhtar – were charged with ‘blasphemy’ under article 306 the Penal Code and remain in detention32https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/arbitrary-detention-ten-human-rights-defenders; https://www.civicus.org/documents/MauritaniaUPRSubmission.EN.2020.pdf.

References

1 https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/mauritania/session_23_-_november_2015/unpo_upr23_mrt_e_main.pdf
2 https://minorityrights.org/country/mauritania/
3 https://adsdatabase.ohchr.org/IssueLibrary/MAURITANIA_Constitution.pdf
4 https://acjr.org.za/resource-centre/penal-code-of-mauritania/view (in French)
5 http://www.justice.gov.mr//IMG/pdf/statutpersonnelarabe.pdf
6, 7 https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/MAURITANIA-2019-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf
8 https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/data/country-data/mauritania/
9 https://www.antislavery.org/big-win-mauritania-slavery/
10 https://unpo.org/members/13228; https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/mauritania/session_23_-_november_2015/unpo_upr23_mrt_e_main.pdf
11 http://www.glimpsefromtheglobe.com/regions/middle-east-and-north-africa/the-disastrous-implications-of-modern-day-slavery-in-mauritania/
12 https://unpo.org/members/13228
13 https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/54bce7604.pdf
14 https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/09/05/they-told-me-keep-quiet/obstacles-justice-and-remedy-sexual-assault-survivors
15, 17 https://acjr.org.za/resource-centre/penal-code-of-mauritania/@@download/file/Mauritania%20Penal%20Code%201983.pdf
16 https://fr.reuters.com/article/us-mauritania-women-sexcrimes-idUSKCN1N40FU
18 aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/mauritania-strengthens-blasphemy-law-blogger-case-171122163349451.html
19 https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/ACT5018472020ENGLISH.PDF
20 https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/culture/2014/01/mauritania-religious-crisis-accusations-apostasy.html#
21 iheu.org/iheu-calls-on-un-to-do-more-to-protect-mauritanian-anti-slavery-campaigners/
22 https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/statement-report/upr-submission-mauritania-2020
23 http://www.ictpolicyafrica.org/fr/document/a74yc6lf0v?page=1
24 https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/mauritania
25 https://www.lepoint.fr/monde/mauritanie-l-opposition-denonce-un-etat-de-siege-26-06-2019-2321266_24.php
26 https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/AFR3806942019ENGLISH.pdf
27 https://minorityrights.org/2019/07/15/mauritania-crackdown-activists/; https://www.ecoi.net/en/document/2028282.html
28 iheu.org/iheu-condemns-death-sentence-for-apostasy-handed-to-writer-in-mauritania/
29 bvoltaire.fr/philippe-franceschi/peut-sauver-mohamed-cheikh-ould-mkheitir,149711
30 washingtonpost.com/world/africa/mauritania-blogger-sentenced-to-death-is-released-on-appeal/2017/11/09/00573942-c565-11e7-9922-4151f5ca6168_story.html?utm_term=.5d2f6adbd727; aa.com.tr/en/africa/security-disperse-protests-in-mauritanian-capital/962148
31 humanists.international/2019/08/mohamed-cheikh-ould-mkhaitir-freed-after-6-years-in-detention/
32 https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/arbitrary-detention-ten-human-rights-defenders; https://www.civicus.org/documents/MauritaniaUPRSubmission.EN.2020.pdf

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