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Mauritania: President Should Lead Reform Process

Celebrate Year in Office with Pledge to End Repressive Laws, Protect Women’s Rights

President Mohamed Ould Ghezouani of Mauritania. © 2020 Regis Duvignau/AFP via Getty Images

Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Ghezouani should lead a process to reform repressive laws that muzzle speech and act decisively to advance women’s rights as he marks his first year in office on August 1, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today.

President Ghezouani made scant progress in overhauling existing repressive laws in his first year, and in June parliament adopted an overly broad Law on Combatting Manipulation of Information that stipulates fines and harsh prison sentences for violations. Parliament has yet to pass a draft law on violence against women and girls introduced in 2016.

“The president has an opportunity to break with his predecessor’s tendency to lock up opponents, and to embrace a rights-based approach,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “A good place to start is reforming laws that stipulate harsh sentences and even the death penalty for nonviolent speech offenses.”

Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Mauritania’s president from 2009 to 2019, prosecuted and jailed human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and political opponents using repressive laws on criminal defamation, counterterrorism, cybercrimes, the spread of “false information,” and blasphemy. The authorities also used the restrictive law on associations to withhold legal status from organizations that displeased them.

Mauritania’s laws impose the death penalty for a range of offenses, including, under certain conditions, blasphemy, apostasy, adultery, and homosexuality, though a de facto moratorium remains in effect on capital punishment. President Ghezouani should maintain the de facto moratorium on the death penalty until Mauritania completely abolishes it, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and its irreversible and inhumane nature.

The Law on Combatting Manipulation of Information, adopted by parliament on June 24, says that its objective is to prevent manipulation of information, publication of false news, and the creation of fake digital identities. It states that it seeks to suppress manipulation of information “especially during periods of elections and during health crises.” Penalties for violations range from three months to five years in prison, and fines from 50,000 to 200,000 Ouguiya (US$ 1,325-5,300).

Prosecutors have an arsenal of repressive legislation to punish critics for nonviolent speech.

Article 348 of the Criminal Code provides for punishment of six months to five years in prison for defamation.

In 2018, the National Assembly passed a law on blasphemy that replaces article 306 of the Criminal Code and makes the death penalty mandatory for anyone convicted of “blasphemous speech” and acts deemed “sacrilegious.” The law eliminates the possibility under article 306 of substituting prison terms for the death penalty for certain apostasy-related crimes if the offender promptly repents.

The law also provides for a sentence of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 600,000 Ouguiyas (US$ 15,940) for “offending public indecency and Islamic values” and for “breaching Allah’s prohibitions” or assisting in their breach.

An anti-discrimination law adopted in 2017 states in Article 10, “Whoever encourages an incendiary discourse against the official rite of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania shall be punished by one to five years in prison.”

The restrictive 1964 Law of Associations requires associations to obtain formal permission to operate legally and gives the Interior Ministry far-reaching authority to refuse such permission on vague grounds such as “anti-national propaganda” or exercising “an unwelcome influence on the minds of the people.”

These laws should be revised or scrapped to protect freedom of speech and association, Human Rights Watch said.

“President Ghezouani should also lead on ensuring that women have protections from violence by passing legislation to combat domestic violence and repealing discriminatory laws,” Goldstein said.

In March 2016, the government approved a draft law on gender-based violence that is pending before parliament. The law would define and punish rape and sexual harassment, create special criminal court chambers to hear sexual violence cases, and allow nongovernmental groups to bring cases on behalf of survivors. While a step in the right direction, the current draft falls short in several respects, including maintaining criminal charges for consensual sexual relations outside marriage and restrictions on abortion.

Mauritanian law does not adequately define the crime of rape and other forms of sexual assault. Article 309 of the Penal Code should be amended to define rape either as a physical invasion of a sexual nature of any part of the body of the victim with an object or sexual organ without consent or under coercive circumstances. The law should explicitly criminalize marital rape.

The law should also provide for a broad offense of sexual assault, defined as a violation of bodily integrity and autonomy, graded based on harm, and providing for aggravating circumstances including but not limited to the age of the survivor, the relationship of the attacker and the survivor, the use of threats or violence, the presence of multiple attackers, and the gravity of long-term mental and physical consequences of the assault. 

Human Rights Watch found, after research in Mauritania in 2018 and 2019, that the lack of strong laws on gender-based violence and of institutions to provide assistance to victims, along with social pressures and stigma, dissuade abused women and girls from seeking help and remedies. Authorities provide inadequate medical, mental health, and legal support services to victims, and rely too heavily on nongovernmental organizations to fill the protection gap.

The existing criminalization of consensual adult sexual relations outside marriage most likely deters girls and women from reporting assaults, because they can find themselves charged if the judiciary views the sexual act in question as consensual. Article 307 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes consensual sexual relations outside marriage (zina), should be repealed, and article 306 of the Penal Code that prohibits, among other things, offenses to public decency and Islamic morals, should also be repealed. These charges are sometimes used as a fallback provision to punish consensual sexual relations outside marriage. Mauritania’s laws on divorce, child custody, and inheritance discriminate against women.

Mauritania’s laws also discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Article 308 of the criminal code states that “Any adult Muslim who has committed an indecent act or an act against nature with an individual of the same sex will be punished to death by public stoning.” If the act is between two women, they will be punished by imprisonment for three months to two years and a possible fine. Articles 264 and 306 prohibit “indecency” and “inciting debauchery.” All three articles should be revoked.

“President Ghezouani’s legacy starts now,” Goldstein said. “He can kick-start the dismantling of an abusive, repressive legal system or share responsibility for prolonging it despite all the hopes that were placed in his presidency.”

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