Human Rights Watch condemned the ongoing harassment of opposition
leaders and human rights activists in Mauritania and called for the unconditional release from prison of three opposition activists.

On June 14, outspoken opposition leader Chbih Cheikh Ould Malainine and two colleagues, Mokhtar Ould Haibetna and Bouba Ould Hassan, were convicted and sentenced to five years' imprisonment for alleged involvement with terrorist groups and a Libyan coup plot. Chbih Cheikh Ould Malainine, the leader of the opposition Popular Front and presidential candidate in the 1997 elections, was detained on April 8, 2001. The charges against Malainine, backed by little if any substantive evidence, appear to be politically motivated.

"Despite government claims that Mauritania is a democracy, opposition candidates continue to be subjected to arbitrary harassment by the authorities," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.

Cheikh Malainine's trial was conducted under close police surveillance. His case was heard in Aioun, about 800km south-east of the capital, Nouakchott. Security forces used teargas to disrupt a rally in Nouakchott on April 25, 2001, organized by the Popular Front to protest the arrest. Cheikh Melainine's lawyers have said they will appeal against his conviction.

Human Rights Watch said Malainine's case highlights longstanding harassment of figures perceived to be in opposition to the government in Mauritania. President Ould Taya's government has in the last year stepped up repression by curbing press freedom, banning the Union des forces democratiques-Ère nouvelle party, and teargassing and disrupting public protests.

Two of the main human rights organizations in Mauritania, SOS-Esclaves and the Association Mauritanienne des Droits de l'Homme (AMDH) are not able to function effectively because they have been denied registration by the government. In 1998 leading figures of the two organizations were convicted and sentenced to thirteen months in prison.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Mauritanian government to take more active steps to end slavery and slave-like practices in the West African nation.

A copy of the letter to President Ould Taya is available here.