Mauritanian authorities detained opposition leader, Mohamed Ould Ghadda, for two months on vague corruption charges. 

© 2016 Mohamed Ould Ghadda (Official Facebook Page)

Mohamed Ould Ghadda, the former Mauritanian senator, was sitting on the floor outside of a cell shared with eight other co-prisoners when I met him in Mauritania’s Nouakchott Prison about a week ago.

“I refused to ask the court to release me pre-trial because that would make it easier for them to let the case drag on,” said Ghadda, who spends his days in a communal cell, waiting for news of his case. “For me, there are only two acceptable options: try me or release me.”

Last March, Ghadda helped to defeat constitutional amendments favored by President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to dissolve the Senate. When the president put the same proposal to a national referendum on August 5, Ghadda loudly denounced it. Five days after voters approved the president’s proposal, Ghadda was taken into custody.

Ghadda was held for three weeks before seeing a judge. The first six days he was held incommunicado. “They left me alone in a dark room, nobody talked to me,” said Ghadda. It was six more weeks before a judge questioned him about the case. Ghadda, who I was able to visit thanks to Mauritania’s National Human Rights Commission, is being investigated for allegedly accepting funds from exiled businessman and philanthropist Mohamed Bouamatou, funds that Ghadda allegedly distributed to opposition senators.

Minister of Justice Brahim Ould Daddah told me on October 19 that the prosecution seeks to prove that Ghadda’s actions constitute a crime under Mauritania’s anti-corruption law of 2016. Ghadda maintains he is innocent of any wrongdoing.

Mauritania has issued an international arrest warrant for Bouamatou, a wealthy critic of the president. The panel of investigating judges who questioned Ghadda on October 12 has also placed twelve other senators, four independent journalists, and two union leaders under judicial control – also for alleged financial ties to Bouamatou.

Many people in Mauritania have told Human Rights Watch they believe this corruption investigation is really about silencing an opponent of the president and intimidating other opponents, independent journalists, and civil society actors who might accept support from Bouamatou.

Nothing would better dispel that impression than a speedy resolution of Ghadda’s case. Officials should either try him fairly or drop the charges.

Note: The Fondation pour l’Egalité des chances en Afrique, a foundation created by Mohamed Bouamatou, supports the work of Human Rights Watch.