The Mauritanian government's harassment of opposition figures undermines any chance of free and fair elections, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the Mauritanian president today.

From late April, Mauritanian security forces arrested dozens of religious leaders, opposition politicians and social activists, allegedly in a campaign to crack down on terrorist movements in Mauritania. The government recently released all those arrested, a gesture timed to coincide with the announcement of presidential elections scheduled for November 7. Yet they still face trial on unfounded charges of treason.

"The government put forward no credible evidence that those arrested had been involved in any terrorist activities," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "It seems that this is yet another example of a government opportunistically using the language of counter-terrorism to crack down on legitimate dissent."

In an open letter to President Ould Sid Ahmed Taya Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about a yet-to-be determined number of military officers detained incommunicado following an alleged coup attempt on June 8.

"The lack of access to the military officers that are in detention raises serious concerns about their treatment, given past reports of inhuman conditions of detention in Mauritania," Human Rights Watch said. "Those military officers still detained should be charged and tried promptly with full respect for due process standards."

The Mauritanian government has restricted rights to freedom of expression and association for many years. Non-governmental organizations such as human rights groups and the media are repeatedly shut down, refused access to public forums or censored for expressing opinions critical of government policies.

Human Rights Watch therefore urges the government to abolish the laws governing censorship of the media and to allow legitimate human rights and other charitable organizations to function freely.