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People wait to cast their vote on September 1, 2018 outside a polling station in Nouakchott for the country's legislative, regional and local elections.  © 2018 Ahmed Ould Mohamed Ould Elhadj/AFP/Getty Images

(Geneva) –Mauritanian authorities used a litany of harsh and overbroad laws on terrorism, cybercrime, apostasy, and criminal defamation to prosecute and jail human rights defenders, activists, bloggers, and political dissidents during 2018, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2019.

In the latest such case, a criminal court in September charged an activist, Abdallahi Salem Ould Yali, with incitement to violence and racial hatred for social media messages criticizing racial discrimination in the country. Yali has been in pre-charge detention since his arrest in January 2018.

“Mauritania’s authorities wield an array of repressive laws to silence activists and organizations that insist that slavery and ethnic discrimination are major issues facing the nation,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should urgently reform the penal code and other laws to prevent them from being used to punish peaceful speech.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

A court on December 31 freed Biram Bah Abeid, president of the anti-slavery association Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) and newly elected member of parliament, after imposing a sentence on him that included two months of actual prison time, which he had already served following his arrest in August 2018 . The court prosecuted Biram on charges of insulting and threatening a journalist. The authorities have refused to process IRA’s application for formal registration since the organization was founded in 2008 and have blocked its efforts to hold conferences and workshops. Two of its activists were freed from prison in 2018 after completing two-year terms following an unfair trial of 13 IRA activists.

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, a prominent blogger who was sentenced to death on apostasy charges in January 2014 over an article questioning the use of religion to legitimize ethnic and caste discrimination in Mauritania, has been held in an undisclosed location since November 2017, when an appeals’ court reduced his death sentence to two years in prison.

Mauritania should abolish a law adopted in April that made the death penalty mandatory for blasphemy, Human Rights Watch said.

The authorities in August 2017 charged a former senator and opposition figure, Mohamed Ould Ghadda, with dubious corruption charges, accusing him of accepting bribes from a government critic, just days after a public referendum in favor of the Mauritanian Senate’s dissolution, which Ghadda had opposed. Although Ghadda was freed in August after a year in pretrial detention, he remains under judicial control and is restricted from traveling.

Authorities have withheld recognition from several associations including Hands Off My Nationality, which focuses on institutional discrimination against black Mauritanians in the national civil registration process. These refusals are possible under the 1964 Law of Associations, which requires associations to obtain permission to operate. The law also grants the Interior Ministry power to refuse permission on vague grounds such as “anti-national propaganda” or “exercis[ing] an unwelcome influence on the minds of the people.”

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