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Mauritania

Executive Summary

Mauritania is an Islamic Republic with a president as head of state and a constitution grounded in French civil law and sharia. The National Assembly exercises legislative functions but was weak relative to the executive. Voters elect the president, deputies to the National Assembly, municipal mayors, and regional councilors. In 2019 voters elected former minister of defense Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani as president with 52 percent of the vote. The election marked the first democratic transition of power between two elected presidents since the country’s independence in 1960. United Nations and African Union observers considered the election to be relatively free and fair. In the 2018 parliamentary elections, the Union for the Republic, the political party founded by former president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, won 95 of 157 seats in the National Assembly.

The National Police, which is responsible for enforcing the law and maintaining order in urban areas, reports to the Ministry of Interior. The National Guard performs a limited police function in keeping with its peacetime role as the guarantor of physical security at government facilities, including prisons. The National Guard reports to the Ministry of the Interior. Regional authorities may call upon the National Guard to restore civil order during riots and other large-scale disturbances. The gendarmerie, a specialized paramilitary organization under the authority of the Ministry of Defense, is responsible for maintaining civil order around metropolitan areas and providing law enforcement services in rural areas. The Ministry of Interior’s General Group for Road Safety maintains security on roads and operates checkpoints throughout the country. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including criminal blasphemy laws; serious government corruption; lack of investigation and accountability for gender-based violence; trafficking in persons, including continued existence of slavery and slavery-related practices; crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex persons; existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and existence of some of the worst forms of child labor.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, and punish officials who committed abuses and prosecuted some abusers, but some officials frequently acted with impunity. Civil society organizations objected to the scant number of indictments handed down by authorities. The government also continued to take steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials involved in corruption.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there were two allegations submitted in 2020 of sexual exploitation and abuse by the country’s peacekeepers deployed to the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic. Both cases involved transactional sex with an adult, and as of October, investigations into both remained pending.

The National Mechanism for Prevention of Torture (MNP) is an independent governmental body charged with investigating credible allegations of torture. The MNP has not launched any investigations since its inception in 2016.

Complaints filed with the courts for allegations of torture were submitted to police for investigation. The government continued to deny the existence of “unofficial” detention centers, even though nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the United Nations pointed out their continued usage. Neither the MNP nor the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) directly addressed the existence of these locations.

Impunity was a serious problem in the security forces, particularly among the General Group for Road Safety, the National Guard, and the National Police. Politicization, widespread corruption, and ethnic tensions between the Beydane-controlled security forces and Haratine (“Black Moor” Arab slave descendants) and sub-Saharan communities were primary factors contributing to impunity. Cases of abuse were routinely handled within the security forces, but authorities took steps to refer cases to the criminal courts. For example, on February 11, authorities sentenced a police commissioner to five years in prison after he assaulted a judge.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions remained life threatening due to persistent food shortages, overcrowding, violence, inadequate sanitary conditions, lack of adequate medical care, and indefinite pretrial detention.

Physical Conditions: Prisons remained overcrowded. For example, the Directorate of Penal Affairs and Prison Administration (DAPAP) maintained that the country’s largest prison, Dar Naim, held approximately three times the number of inmates compared to its capacity. Authorities frequently grouped pretrial detainees with convicts who presented a danger to other prisoners. Male guards frequently monitored female inmates, a practice criticized by the CNDH.

On July 9, DAPAP announced the death of Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, a prisoner at the Aleg national prison. Although DAPAP attributed Abdel-Rahman’s death to natural causes, they noted that his frequent prison transfers may have had adverse effects on his health. DAPAP’s announcement came after prisoners in Aleg rioted to protest Abdel-Rahman’s death. There was no further investigation into the incident at year’s end.

There were two separate prisons for women, one in the capital Nouakchott and the other in the country’s second-largest city, Nouadhibou. Almost all supervisors of female inmates were male because the all-male National Guard was assigned the task of supervising prisons nationwide. The few female supervisors in prisons were not members of the National Guard, but rather members of civil protection teams (firefighters). Detention conditions for women were generally better than those for men. According to prison officials, the women’s prison in Nouakchott was less crowded than those for men.

Prison authorities held a mixed population of prisoners in prison facilities, regardless of their specific sentences. Drugs were often trafficked among prisoners, which the government acknowledged was caused by lax security procedures surrounding visitors. Prisoners sometimes rebelled and disobeyed authorities, in some cases to protest violence and inhuman treatment meted out by jailers. Poor security conditions and the indiscriminate grouping of inmates meant that prisoners often lived with the threat of violence, while some had to bribe other prisoners to avoid brutalization and harassment. Salafist prisoners jailed on terrorism-related charges alleged mistreatment at the Central Civil Prison of Nouakchott. Local NGOs reported that inmates partially managed one wing of the Dar Naim prison by themselves from January to July, a practice not uncommon in the region but with which DAPAP expressed unease. Narcotics, weapons, and cash reportedly circulated freely because staff could not effectively screen goods that entered the prison and could not safely enter some areas.

Human rights groups continued to deplore the lack of adequate sanitation and medical facilities in prisons nationwide, particularly in the Dar Naim men’s prison and at the Central Civil Prison of Nouakchott. The government allocated a budget of 50 ouguiyas ($1.35) a day for each prisoner for food and medical supplies, an amount observers deemed inadequate. Ventilation, lighting, and potable water in many cells and holding areas ranged from inadequate to nonexistent.

The Ministry of Justice operated a youth detention center in Nouakchott. The detention facility held 70 minors during the year. An Italian NGO continued to operate a separate detention center for minors, the only prison facility that came close to meeting international standards. These facilities operated in addition to youth detention centers located in police stations throughout the country.

Administration: Authorities permitted prisoners to file allegations of abuse with the CNDH and the MNP. Government regulations also allowed inmates to elect one representative for dealing with the prison administration, and prisoners occasionally made use of this opportunity. The government acknowledged allegations of inhuman conditions but rarely took corrective action. Authorities routinely transferred prisoners to prisons in the interior of the country to alleviate the overcrowding in Nouakchott and to allow for renovation projects in the Nouakchott prisons; however, these transfers often meant that prisoners were separated from their families and legal representatives and increased the average length of time prisoners were held in pretrial detention. There were no reports of concerns in prisons and detention centers regarding prisoners’ access to visitors or religious observance.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison and detention center visits by NGOs, diplomats, and international human rights observers. The CNDH carried out unannounced visits to these detention centers. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had unlimited access to prisons and conducted multiple visits, including visits to prisoners suspected of terrorist activities.

Improvements: International and local partners, including the ICRC, the Noura Foundation, and Caritas-Mauritania, contributed to the improvement of general hygiene and living conditions in the detention centers and prisons with the support of the government. The ICRC helped to improve infrastructure, hygiene, and health conditions in detention centers and rehabilitated the sanitation network of Dar Naim Prison. The ICRC also continued implementing a program to combat malnutrition in prisons, including the main prisons in Aleg and Dar Naim, by rehabilitating kitchen facilities and periodically providing medicines and other hygiene products.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government did not always observe these prohibitions and rights. A detainee has the legal right to challenge the lawfulness of his or her detention under two circumstances: first, if a person remains arrested after the end of his or her legal period of detention; and second, if the detainee disagrees with his or her sentence, in which case he or she has the right to file an appeal before a court of appeal or the Supreme Court.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Authorities generally did not inform detainees of the accusations against them until the conclusion of the police investigation. With few exceptions, individuals could not be detained for more than 48 hours without evidence, and prosecutors may extend the period for an additional 48 hours in some cases. Because nonbusiness days are not counted within this 48-hour maximum period, police sometimes arrested individuals on a Wednesday or Thursday to keep them in custody for a full week. If a person is detained on terrorism charges, that individual can be held in custody for as long as 45 days. The law requires that a suspect be brought before a judicial officer and charged with a crime within 48 hours; however, authorities generally did not respect this right.

During its Universal Periodic Review of the country on January 19, the UN Human Rights Committee noted that police records of detainees in police stations were poorly maintained. Only after the prosecutor submits charges does a suspect have the right to contact an attorney. By law indigent defendants are entitled to an attorney at state expense, but legal representation was frequently either unavailable or attorneys did not speak the defendant’s language (and were not always provided interpretation services). On January 6, the government completed staffing for legal aid offices throughout the country. These legal aid offices are provided for by law, and they helped victims and defendants to access the legal resources available to them. Judges sometimes arbitrarily refused requests for bail or set inordinately high bail amounts.

Arbitrary Arrest: During the year authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained protesters, human rights activists, and journalists (see section 2.a.). On April 25, the Nouadhibou police detained four young adults (one woman and three men) who had participated in a social media program called al-Matrush. The content featured the young woman talking about gender equality, female sexuality, and premarital sex. Authorities released the four on April 28, after police allegedly made them promise to stop the program and confiscated their cell phones.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a serious problem. According to DAPAP the average length for pretrial detention was six to 12 months, and approximately 40 percent of the prison population were pretrial detainees. Members of the security forces sometimes arrested demonstrators and held them longer than the legal maximum time, often due to a lack of capacity to process cases in a timely manner, and in some cases to obtain confessions. By law authorities may not hold a minor for more than six months while the detainee awaits trial. Nevertheless, there were reports of many individuals, including minors, remaining in pretrial detention for excessively long periods due to judicial inefficiency, although the length of pretrial detention rarely, if ever, equaled or exceeded the maximum sentence for the alleged crime. During the COVID-19 pandemic, most jurisdictions stopped processing cases in January and from July through September, and both the rate and length of pretrial detention increased.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government mostly respected judicial independence and impartiality. Nevertheless, the executive branch continued to exercise significant influence over the judiciary through its ability to appoint and remove judges. Authorities did not always respect or enforce court orders. Observers generally perceived judges to be corrupt, unskilled, and subject to social and tribal pressures.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The law requires that authorities inform defendants of the charges against them within 48 hours, but the government did not normally respect this provision. Defendants often did not learn of the charges against them until the police investigation was complete. Defendants have the right to be present during their trial. All defendants, including the indigent, have the right to legal counsel, but authorities generally did not respect this right. Likewise, defendants may confront or question witnesses and present witnesses and evidence in both civil and criminal cases.

Defendants generally had adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants did not always have access to free interpretation if they could not speak or understand the language of the court. Defendants enjoy the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt and have the right of appeal. These rights extend to minorities and men but do not extend equally to women. Sharia is, in part, the basis for trial procedures. Courts generally did not treat women equally with men during these proceedings.

A special court for minors hears cases involving persons younger than age 18. Children who appeared before the court received more lenient sentences than adults, and extenuating circumstances received greater consideration. The minimum age for a child to stand trial is 12 years.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Complaints of human rights abuses fall within the jurisdiction of the Administrative Court. Individuals or organizations may appeal decisions to international and regional courts. NGO representatives stated they collaborated with the Administrative Court but added it was not impartial. There are administrative remedies through the social chambers in both the court of appeals and the Supreme Court.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The constitution prohibits such actions, although there were numerous reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions. For example, authorities often entered homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of women is illegal. The law does not address rape of men. Rapists who are single men face penalties of imprisonment, forced labor, and whipping; married rapists are subject to the death penalty, although this penalty was last enforced in 1987. The government increasingly enforced prison sentences for convicted rapists, but prosecution remained provisional. Nevertheless, as in years past, wealthy rape suspects reportedly avoided prosecution or, if prosecuted, avoided prison. It was common for the families of rape survivors to reach an agreement with the perpetrator in the form of monetary compensation.

Rape survivors were discouraged from reporting the crime because they themselves could be jailed for having intercourse outside of marriage. Reliable data on gender-based violence remained sparse, and the situation of children and women who were victims of abuse was poorly documented. The subject remained taboo due to social mores and traditional norms, which often called for survivors to be rejected by their family and society. On June 17, three men allegedly raped a mother and her two daughters in Nouakchott. Police arrested the three suspects, and they remained in pretrial detention at year’s end.

Spousal abuse and domestic violence are illegal, but there are no specific penalties for domestic violence. The government did not enforce the law effectively, and convictions were rare.

Police and the judiciary occasionally intervened in domestic abuse cases, but women rarely sought legal redress, relying instead on family, NGOs, and community leaders to resolve their domestic disputes. NGOs reported that, in certain cases, they sought police assistance to protect survivors of domestic violence, but police declined to investigate.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law states that any act or attempt to damage a girl’s sexual organs is punishable by imprisonment and a monetary fine. Authorities seldom applied the law due to lack of awareness regarding the ordinance in the law that bans the practice and traditional and religious beliefs supporting the practice. According to a 2015 UNICEF study, 67 percent of women ages 15 to 49 had undergone FGM/C, and the study found that in certain regions the prevalence was higher than 90 percent. On February 6, Minister of Social Affairs Naha Mint Cheikh Sidya stated the rate had fallen to 53 percent for girls younger than 14.

The Ministry of Social Affairs, Childhood, and Family continued to track the more than 2,000 traditional health providers who publicly abandoned the practice of FGM/C to ensure that the providers would not start the practice again.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Traditional forms of mistreatment of women continued to decline. One of these was the forced feeding of adolescent girls prior to marriage, practiced by some Beydane families and known as gavage. The practice forced some girls to eat up to 16,000 calories a day for two months, with refusals to eat often accompanied by physical punishments from family members.

Sexual Harassment: There are no laws against sexual harassment. Women’s NGOs reported that sexual harassment was a common problem in the workplace.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. According to NGOs, doctors continued to perform so-called virginity tests, particularly in cases of rape and sexual violence.

According to the law, married couples have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Single pregnant woman, however, do not enjoy the same freedoms, since the law criminalizes sexual relations outside of marriage.

Social and cultural barriers significantly limited access to contraception, including misinformation that contraception causes cancerous diseases, death, or infertility. Contraceptives were not widely available in health centers, and some religious fatwas forbid the use of contraception without the husband’s permission. For unmarried women, stigma impeded access to contraception. The proportion of women of reproductive age whose need for family planning was satisfied with modern methods was 35 percent, and the contraceptive prevalence rate for women ages 15-49, with any method, was 12 percent.

According to the law, women have the right to a childbirth assisted by qualified health personnel, but many women lacked access to those services. Social stigmas and conservative sociocultural factors limited access to information and health services, particularly for adolescents.

The government provided limited access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. A unit in the Maternity and Child Center in Nouakchott treated female victims of sexual violence. This unit also gave women emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy after cases of rape. Access to these services was uncommon outside of Nouakchott, and even when services were available, women were often discouraged by their immediate family from seeking assistance after incidents of sexual violence.

In 2017 the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated the maternal mortality rate to be 766 per 100,000 live births. The high maternal mortality rate was due to a lack of medical equipment, few programs promoting prenatal care for mothers, births without the assistance of health professionals, poor sanitation, malnutrition, and high rates of adolescent pregnancy. FGM/C was a significant problem and contributed to maternal morbidity. (See the Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) subsection for additional information.) The WHO estimated the adolescent (females ages 15-19) birth rate to be 84 per 1,000.

Girls’ access to education was affected by pregnancy and motherhood status, since many girls who became pregnant dropped out of school to care for their child.

Discrimination: Women have legal rights to property and child custody, and the more educated and urbanized women were more likely to enjoy these rights. Nevertheless, women in general had fewer legal rights than men.

Additionally, women faced other forms of legal discrimination. According to sharia as applied in the country, the testimony of two women was required to equal that of one man. The courts granted only one-half as large an indemnity to the family of a female victim as that accorded to the family of a male victim. The personal status code provides a framework for the consistent application of secular law and sharia-based family law, but judicial officials did not always respect it. There are legal restrictions on women’s employment, including limitations on working in occupations deemed dangerous and certain industries including mining and construction.

Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination

The law provides that all citizens, regardless of race or ethnicity, are equal. Nevertheless, Haratines (the “Black Moors” and former slave caste) and sub-Saharans often faced discrimination from the country’s Beydane community. Police often tolerated discrimination towards the Haratines and sub-Saharans since the security services were largely controlled by Beydane.

Haratine and sub-Saharan ethnic groups faced governmental discrimination while the Beydane ethnic group received governmental preference. For example, individuals living across the border in Western Sahara (who are of Beydane ethnicity) easily obtained national identity cards required to vote, although they were not legally qualified to do so because they were not citizens. Meanwhile, Haratine (Arab slave descendants) and sub-Saharan (non-Arab) citizens often had great difficulty obtaining national identity documents.

Racial and cultural tension and discrimination also arose from the geographic, linguistic, and cultural divides between Moors (Beydane and Haratine) – who while historically representing a mix of Berber, Arab, and sub-Saharan Africans, today largely identify culturally and linguistically as Arab – and the sub-Saharan non-Arab minorities. Historically, the Beydane (“White Moors”) enslaved the Haratine population (“Black Moors”); some hereditary slavery continued, and Haratines continued to suffer from the legacy of centuries of slavery (see section 7.b.). Beydane tribes and clans dominated positions in government and business far beyond their proportion of the population. As a group, the Haratines remained politically and economically weaker than the Beydane, although they represented the largest ethnocultural group in the country. The various sub-Saharan ethnic groups, along with the Haratines, remained underrepresented in leadership positions in government, industry, and the military (see section 3). President Ghazouani increased the number of Haratines and sub-Saharans in leadership positions, most notably by appointing a Haratine as prime minister.

From June through September, the Union for the Republic, the country’s ruling political party, held a series of workshops and debates throughout the country to address the issue of national cohesion and slavery. The workshops marked the first time that the ruling party began to openly discuss ways to overcome some of the country’s racial and cultural tensions.

The government took steps to mitigate the economic factors that contributed to the problem. For example, the General Delegation for National Solidarity and the Fight against Exclusion, or Taazour, was created in 2019 to intensify government efforts to combat slavery and address the social and economic conditions that left many citizens vulnerable to forced labor. With a budget of 20 billion ouguiyas ($541 million) through 2024, Taazour was implementing projects to improve living conditions and provide skills to members of historically marginalized communities. The institution had the authority to coordinate projects of other government agencies in order to maximize their impact. Taazour had an agreement with the CNDH to facilitate efforts by beneficiaries of Taazour projects to seek redress for any abuse of their civil rights.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

LGBTQI+ persons were reportedly harassed and were subject to violence from the National Police, the general Group for Road Safety, neighbors, and family members. On October 21, a video circulated on WhatsApp showing several road safety police harassing a transgender person. During the video, which appeared to be filmed by one of the officers, police began stripping the person, and officers can be heard saying they were going to investigate the woman’s “fake breasts.” There were no reports that authorities launched an investigation into the incident.

No laws protect LGBTQI+ persons from discrimination. Under sharia as applied in the country, consensual same-sex sexual conduct between men is punishable by death if witnessed by four individuals, and such conduct between women is punishable by three months to two years in prison and a token monetary fine. The government did not actively enforce these measures. The LGBTQI+ community was rarely identified or discussed, which observers attributed to the severity of the stigma and the legal penalties attached to such labels.

According to the latest report by the LGBTQI+ Nouakchott Solidarity Association from 2017, the rights of LGBTQI+ persons were not recognized and therefore not protected. LGBTQI+ persons lived in perpetual fear of being expelled from their families, had difficulty finding employment, and were rejected by society in general. As a result they did not attend or participate in public activities due to fears of retribution and violence.

Section 7. Worker Rights

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination based on race, disability, religion, political opinion, national origin, citizenship, social origin, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, or language, but the government generally did not enforce the law. Penalties were not commensurate with those for comparable violations. For example, in conformity with long-standing practice, the employment and advancement of both Haratines and sub-Saharans in the armed services, the National Police, and civil administrative jobs remained limited. On July 27, the government enacted a dual nationality law that allows dual citizens to work in the government and participate in political life. The new law does not allow for dual citizens to run for president or become the prime minister, the president of the national assembly, or a minister of sovereignty (i.e., minister of foreign affairs, defense, Islamic affairs, or interior).

The law provides that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work. The two largest employers, the civil service and the state mining company, observed this law; most employers in the private sector reportedly did not. In the modern wage sector, women also received family benefits, including three months of paid maternity leave. Women faced widespread employment discrimination, because employers usually preferred to hire men, with women overrepresented in low-paying positions (see section 6). There are legal restrictions on women’s employment, including limitations on working in occupations deemed dangerous or morally inappropriate and certain industries including mining and construction.

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