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Committee against Torture considers report of Mauritania

GENEVA (25 July 2018) - The Committee against Torture this afternoon concluded its consideration of the second periodic report of Mauritania on the efforts made by the State party to implement the provisions of the Convention against Torture.

Introducing the report, Mohamed Lemine Ould Sidi, Commissioner for Human Rights, Humanitarian Action and Relations with Civil Society of Mauritania, explained that in order to give effect to the Convention against Torture, Mauritania had adopted several laws, including a law on the fight against torture (law no. 2015-033), which incorporated the definition of torture as contained in the Convention, prohibited secret detention, and stipulated the necessary measures to ensure the impartial and independent investigation of all cases of torture.  In addition, the law no. 2015-034 provided for the creation of the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture, which had been set up on 20 April 2016.  The Mechanism was an independent institution that was granted all the necessary financial and human resources in line with the provisions of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.  In addition, Mauritania had adopted laws to prohibit the corporal punishment of children and female genital mutilation, as well as a road map to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery.

In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts commended Mauritania for having adopted the laws on the fight against torture, established the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture, criminalized slavery, and ensured the provision of legal aid.  However, they raised concern about lengthy pre-trial detention, especially in relation to anti-terrorism legislation, poor maintenance of prison and detention registers, lack of a guarantee for access to a lawyer throughout the legal process, the existence of secret detention facilities, absence of systematic separation of prisoners according to sex and age, and the use of excessive force against prisoners and of solitary confinement.  Other issues raised concerned the expulsion of foreigners, lack of a disaggregated database on prosecutions and sentences arising from acts of torture and ill-treatment, prison overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions in prisons, the application of Sharia-mandated (hadd and qisas) penalties, such as amputation and whipping, the payment of the so-called blood money (diyah) to the families of victims, training programmes for police officers and judicial personnel, availability of reparations for victims, and amnesty for past crimes.  

In his concluding remarks, Mr. Ould Sidi reiterated the will of Mauritania to progress in the fight against torture, and he thanked all members of the Committee for the quality of their comments and questions.

Jens Modvig, Committee Chairperson, reminded the delegation that it could submit additional replies in writing within 48 hours.  He thanked all members of civil society from Mauritania for their participation in the dialogue with Committee, and he asked the State party and civil society to respect each other’s role in the dialogue with the Committee.    
 
The delegation of Mauritania included representatives of the Ministry of Labour, Modernization and Administration, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Childhood and Family, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior and Decentralization, and the Permanent Mission of Mauritania to the United Nations Office at Geneva.  

The Committee will next meet in public on Thursday, 26 July, at 3 p.m. to conclude its consideration of the sixth periodic report of the Russian Federation (CAT/C/RUS/6).  

Report

The second periodic report of Mauritania can be read here: CAT/C/MRT/2

Presentation of the Report

MOHAMED LEMINE OULD SIDI, Commissioner for Human Rights, Humanitarian Action and Relations with Civil Society of Mauritania, said that the report had been drafted in a participatory manner, in consultation with all the ministries, national human rights institutions, and civil society.  He reiterated Mauritania’s commitment to the mandate of the Committee against Torture, and he presented key developments in the country since the presentation of its initial report.  The Government of Mauritania placed great emphasis on the promotion and protection of human rights, which was at the heart of its policies.  Reminding that Mauritania had ratified the Convention against Torture in 2004, the Commissioner noted that his country’s commitment to the Convention had been strengthened by the ratification of the following human rights instruments: the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Convention No. 29 on forced labour of the International Labour Organization.  In order to give effect to the Convention against Torture, Mauritania had adopted several laws to criminalize torture and slavery.  In September 2015, it adopted a law on the fight against torture (law no. 2015-033), which incorporated the definition of torture as contained in the Convention, prohibited secret detention, and stipulated the necessary measures to ensure an impartial and independent investigation of all cases of torture.  In addition, the law no. 2015-034 provided for the creation of the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture, which had been set up on 20 April 2016.  The Mechanism was an independent institution that was granted with all the necessary financial and human resources in line with the provisions of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.  

The adoption of the law no. 2017-016 in July 2017 regulated the composition, organization and functioning of the National Commission for Human Rights, and it strengthened its independence, professionalism and the pluralism of its members.  In addition, Mauritania had adopted laws to prohibit the corporal punishment of children and female genital mutilation, as well as a road map to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery.  The authorities had conducted public awareness raising campaigns to delegitimize slavery in all its forms, and they had worked with religious leaders and civil society to that end.  Turning to female genital mutilation, the Commissioner noted that the Government had achieved significant results in recent years in reducing the prevalence of female genital mutilation among girls, which had decreased from 66.6 per cent in 2011 to 53.2 per cent in 2015.  As for the improvement of prison conditions, the Commissioner underlined that the rate of overcrowding had decreased since 2016, adding that the length of judicial proceedings had shortened.  The authorities were currently constructing new detention units, and were working to ensure the separation of prisoners and to improve their access to social and educational activities.    

Questions by the Country Rapporteurs

SEBASTIEN TOUZÉ, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Mauritania, commended the adoption of the law no. 2015-033 on the fight against torture, the law establishing the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture, as well as the laws criminalizing slavery, establishing the National Commission for Human Rights, and the law on legal aid.  

Turning to pre-trial detention, Mr. Touzé noted that the Criminal Procedure Code contained several provisions which were not in line with international human rights instruments.  Very often people were held in pre-trial detention beyond 48 hours, and it seemed that many problems with respect to pre-trial detention arose from the implementation of anti-terrorism legislation.  The 2010 Anti-Terrorism Law contained an imprecise definition of terrorism, which aimed to suppress the “undermining of the fundamental social values and destabilization of constitutional, political, economic and social institutions of the Nation.”  What was meant by the “undermining of the fundamental social values”?  Had the audit of anti-terrorism legislation by the United Nations led to any recommendations?

Prison and detention registers were very badly kept, Mr. Touzé underlined.  Some of those registers had been filled after the fact, which was particularly worrying.  What improvements had been made with respect to the recommendations that those registers be enhanced?  Did the State party intend to digitize them and make them available to civil society?  

As for the rights of detained persons, Mr. Touzé inquired about how charges were communicated to persons deprived of their liberty, and about their access to a lawyer from the moment of arrest.  In cases of terrorism and acts against the State, the national law did not guarantee access to a lawyer throughout the legal process, Mr. Touzé reminded and added that the law against torture was, therefore, applied very selectively and arbitrarily.  He also raised a concern that there were not enough lawyers to provide aid to the poorest segments of the society.

Mr. Touzé further inquired about access to a medical doctor and asked whether medical examinations took place without the presence of the police.  Turning to incommunicado detention for acts of terrorism, he inquired whether the State party had opened any inquiries into secret places of detention.

With respect to detention conditions, the Country Co-Rapporteur reminded that the majority of prisoners were accommodated in places which were not tailored for such purposes.  A number of detention centres were improvised and did not have efficient oversight, leading to severe overcrowding.  Hygiene conditions were deplorable and sometimes prisoners did not have any place to sit or lie down.  What measures had the State party undertaken to remedy the problem of overcrowding?  Would the planned construction of new prison units remedy the problem?  He wondered whether the penal policy itself was the cause of overcrowding?  What was the number of prisoners, disaggregated by sex, age and nationality?

Sentenced prisoners and those in pre-trial detention were frequently kept together.  Why was it that the separation of minors from adult prisoners was guaranteed in all places of detention, except those for women?  What was the number of appropriately trained prison staff?  Could the delegation comment on the use of excessive force against prisoners and of solitary confinement?  Were there any ways to appeal those disciplinary measures?  
   
Mr. Touzé also inquired about the provision of proper food and drinking water, and the lack of medicines and trained medical staff.  

Noting the long length of preventive detention, Mr. Touzé stressed the need for the overhaul of the judicial system and the use of alternative measures to imprisonment.

Had the State party launched any inquiries into the use of excessive force by State agents against demonstrators in January 2015, June 2016, and April 2017?  

Turning to non-refoulement, the Country Co-Rapporteur asked when the Government would adopt the bill on the procedure to determine the status of refugees.  Was there an individual appeal procedure in place for the expulsion of foreigners?  Could the State party provide any information about fishing boats operating in Mauritanian waters who were shot at?  

There was no comprehensive disaggregated database on prosecutions and sentences arising from acts of torture and ill-treatment.  Furthermore, there seemed to be a general misunderstanding of the Istanbul Protocol among the medical staff.  

Turning to the National Commission for Human Rights, Mr. Touzé asked about its accreditation and independence from the executive branch.  What measures had the State party adopted in order to ensure that the Commission could retain its A status in line with the Paris Principles?  

ESSADIA BELMIR, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Mauritania, inquired about Mauritania’s criminal legislation and the fact that it appeared to be based on the principle that the Sharia law took precedence over all other legal provisions.  Ms. Belmir underlined the importance of evidence and testimony, and of the principle of non-discrimination.  How could individuals be sentenced to Sharia-mandated penalties (such as amputation and whipping) when the actual definitions of infringements were vague?  That was not in line with international standards.

Ms. Belmir welcomed the training programmes on human rights provided to police officers, judges and judicial personnel, and those responsible for the protection of human rights.  However, there was a lack of specific training on the Convention and its clear prohibition of the use of torture.  It seemed that the Istanbul Protocol was not applied systematically.  There was also a problem of holding judicial or interrogation procedures in a language that was not mastered by all concerned persons.  

Turning to unofficial detention centres, Ms. Belmir recalled that interrogations carried out there were in flagrant violation of international human rights instruments.  Those suspected of terrorism were not guaranteed a lawyer and were often forced into signing confessions.  There was also a problem of the lack of sound and video recording of interrogations, and of intrusive physical searches and examinations which were carried out by police officers instead of medical professionals.          

Members of the National Guard were not sufficiently trained in running detention centres.  According to the information provided by civil society, some detainees had died as a result.  The National Guard was often the first point of contact for detainees which made it impossible for detainees to submit a complaint of mistreatment.  The Government needed to ensure that those running prisons and detention centres did so in a way that guaranteed the dignity of prisoners and detainees.  

The Special Rapporteur on torture, who had visited Mauritania, had remarked that there was a lack of adequate training for medical personnel working in detention centres.  There was only one forensic specialist in the entire country.  Some persons were particularly vulnerable because there was no record of their detention.  The Ministry of Justice should be doing more to tackle such problems, which led to abuse and mistreatment.          
     
How many disciplinary procedures had been initiated against members of law enforcement forces for acts of torture?  The number of cases of torture prosecuted did not correspond to the number of complaints.  Why were those complaints not reaching the authorities?  There seemed to be reluctance of the judiciary to order inquiries.

Turning to reparations and amnesty for past crimes, Ms. Belmir reminded of the lack of justice for the alleged crimes of torture committed between 1989 and 1991.  In view of the fact that the statute of limitation did not apply to crimes of torture, were people really working to find out the truth?  Did the State party generally consider that the issued pardons held water?  

There were a number of complaints of women being harassed or even raped when they complained of being accused of adultery, which carried one of the harshest penalties under Sharia.  

Questions by Committee Experts

Experts raised the issue of hadd penalties (amputation and whipping), qisas penalties, and stoning for rape, which were carried out under the Sharia law and were in complete conflict with international standards.  Would such penalties be abolished?  Was the moratorium on the death penalty effectively applied?  

Experts welcomed the adoption of a law that stipulated that any customary practice that threatened the health, physical integrity and dignity of children would be considered as degrading and inhumane treatment.  

What was the number of people that had benefitted from compensation for the crimes of slavery and torture?  

Turning to the arrest and alleged abuse and torture of human rights defenders, Experts inquired about the protection measures that the State party had in place to address intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders.

On the independence of the judiciary, Experts suggested that the role of the Supreme Court had been decreased to dealing only with administrative issues.  What measures had been taken to guarantee the independence of the judiciary?  

As for gender-based violence, Experts asked the State party to provide relevant statistics on such offences.  Furthermore, Experts inquired about a Saudi Arabian agency that in 2016 had recruited Mauritanian women for domestic work and then had trafficked them for prostitution.  Did the State party license such agencies and did it provide reparation to those trafficked women?

Experts underlined that compensation to victims of torture and ill-treatment had to be implemented in practice.  They also asked for disaggregated statistics on the compensation granted by the State.  

How well was the 2015 law on the fight against torture disseminated in the public?  What was the effectiveness of the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture?  It seemed that it was “deaf and blind” to the complaints of victims of torture and the protests of detainees seeking better detention conditions.  National non-governmental organizations should be authorized to carry out unannounced visits to places of detention.            

Follow-up Questions by Country Rapporteurs

SEBASTIEN TOUZÉ, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Mauritania, raised the issue of confessions extracted under duress, and of the independence of the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture.  He asked if civil society organizations participated in the selection of the members of the Mechanism, and about the dependence of the Mechanism members on salaries provided by the Government.      
   
ESSADIA BELMIR, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Mauritania, inquired about the right to appeal by detained asylum seekers or foreigners.  It often seemed that they were detained on no legal basis whatsoever.  The State party had to ensure that persons were not returned to places where they could be at risk of torture or ill-treatment, Ms. Belmir reminded.    
 
Replies by the Delegation

The delegation explained that police custody could last up to 48 hours, excluding public holidays and days of rest.  It could be extended once for the same amount of time.  Access to a lawyer was foreseen from the very outset of the arrest.  The appointment of an ex officio lawyer was mandatory if the suspect was ill, with disability, or a minor.  There had not been any cases of abuse or extension of police custody.  Detainees could contact the person of their choice, and they were always brought before a medical doctor in case of any signs of injury or abuse.  Prosecutors and judges had to inform suspects of the charges against them and of the circumstances under which the offence had been committed.  If suspects did not understand Arabic, they received interpretation services.

Police presence during medical examination of suspects was not systematic; it took place when dangerous persons were being examined.  Married prisoners could receive private conjugal visits.  

Prosecutors monitored police custody registers, which were kept up to date by the police or prison authorities.  The Government was currently working to digitalize custody registers.  Prisoners could be handcuffed during transfers.  Transfers between prisons were always undertaken in dignified conditions.  

As for the ambiguous definition of terrorism, the bill that modified the Counter-Terrorism Law was currently under review.  Police custody for terrorism charges could last up to 15 days and was usually not renewed.  

In June 2017, 72 persons had received lessened sentences.  A total of 204 persons had received such reduced sentences.  Minors were only held in two prisons in the country, and there was a separate prison facility for women in the capital city of Nouakchott.  Separation was not always possible due to the lack of facilities.  The authorities were currently building three new prisons.  As for hygienic conditions, there had been refurbishment carried out in some detention centres.  The National Programme for Fighting Tuberculosis catered for prisoners suffering from that disease.  In addition, medical personnel had received training and awareness raising programmes to deal with prisoners with HIV/AIDS.  

There was no prisoner in Mauritania that had been deprived of drinking water and electricity, the delegation stressed.  Nevertheless, due to water wasting in the central prison in Nouakchott, water rationing had been introduced.  As for the supply of medicines, a special budget line was devoted to that.  All prisoners received breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Detainees could follow literacy programmes in detention centres that had conditions for such activities.

The use of solitary confinement was determined by the prison warden and could be imposed for 15 days for a maximum of 24 hours a day.  That measure was then assessed by judges.  Prisoners with special medical needs were taken to external clinics.  

Pre-trial detention was a measure of last resort and could last up to four months for serious offences.  Judges could only impose it in line with the Code of Criminal Procedures.  There were non-custodial sentences available.  In order to reduce prison overcrowding, the authorities had transferred some prisoners from Nouakchott.  

Turning to the refoulement decisions, the delegation explained that it took place when all other legal recourses had been exhausted.  Such decisions could be appealed in front of administrative courts.    

The judicial authority was independent from the executive branch.  Judges were protected from all forms of pressure that could undermine their authority.  Magistrates had legal authority as dictated by the law.  They could not be replaced, unless due to disciplinary proceedings, or due to personal request.  

Confessions extracted under duress were not valid.  There was no contradiction between the Sharia law and the principle of evidence gathering.  Under the national Constitution, Sharia remained the only source of law.  

Inmates had free access to judges, who could talk to them freely at any time.  They could also at any time submit complaints to judicial bodies.  There were no inmates in prisons without official detention papers.  Bodily searches could only be conducted by prison guards of the same gender.  

Eight members of the National Guard had been handed down prison sentences for torture.  There had been no hunger strikes in prisons due to poor detention conditions.  Non-government organizations could receive a permission to visit places of detention from the Ministry of Justice.  

There were no secret places of detention in Mauritania, and there was a very strict legal framework governing that matter.  All places of detention were governed by the Ministry of Justice.  Officers of judicial police were strictly monitored and under direct control of the Prosecutor’s Office.  No interrogations or hearings could be held outside the judicial system.  Detention places were visited frequently by relevant monitoring authorities and non-governmental organizations.  The authorities had not received any complaints about criminal judicial procedures.  

Training for police officers was based on the principles of human rights, including the entire set of international human rights treaties.  Mauritania had ratified almost all international human rights conventions.  All police officers had been trained on criminal justice proceedings.  

An administrative detention centre had been created for foreigners who had been found in violation of immigration laws.  There was a transit centre at the coastal city of Nouadhibou for foreigners who wanted to reach the Canary Islands and Europe.  Mauritania and Spain had signed an agreement to monitor their sea borders.  There was a difference between the right to settlement and the right to movement.  When citizens of Mali and Senegal came to Mauritania, they had 19 days to obtain a residence permit.

As for the management of demonstrations, the delegation noted that the authorities had managed to strike a balance between freedom of expression and the maintenance of public order.  The police force had been modernized and it had received some good training.  In 2016, several police officers had been injured by hostile demonstrators, who had vandalized public property and had set police vehicles on fire.  

With respect to the case of Senator Mohamed Ould Ghadda, the delegation underlined that he had never been arbitrarily detained.  He had been placed under house arrest in August 2017 on charges of corruption.  House arrest could last up to 48 hours and could be renewed three times.  The period of house arrest did not include public holidays and rest days.

Moving on to asylum seekers, the delegation noted that they received regular support from the authorities, civil society and the Red Cross.  There were currently more than 16,000 asylum seekers, mostly from West Africa.  

In 2017, the Government had adopted an act to repeal the 2010 act regulating the functioning of the National Commission for Human Rights, in line with the Paris Principles.  The Commission was independent and it had budgetary autonomy.  There were 14 members of the Commission, coming from the national administration and civil society.  

As for the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture, it comprised 24 experts from civil society, professional associations, and the Government.  Candidates must declare that if elected they would resign any other positions.  The Mechanism had an annual budget which was separate from the State budget.

Acts of violence against women were punished under the Penal Code.  Victims of such violence received rehabilitation services and civil reparations.  The authorities had organized a number of public awareness campaigns to encourage women victims of rape to report such crimes.  The Government was currently reviewing a draft framework law on violence against women.  

Questions by the Country Rapporteurs

SEBASTIEN TOUZÉ, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Mauritania, reminded that the Mauritanian authorities had prevented five persons from attending the Committee’s assessment of the State party’s periodic report in Geneva.  

Mr. Touzé noted that on a number of occasions the delegation had provided legalistic answers.  The problem, however, was not the law but its practical implementation.  The presence of a lawyer, for example, was not guaranteed due to the shortage of lawyers.  Another example was the planned improvement of monitoring and control of police custody registers.  Mr. Touzé suggested that the control of those registers be given to civil society.  

In addition, the Co-Rapporteur observed that the way the delegation described detention conditions in Mauritania made him want to book a prison cell for himself.  He noted that those descriptions did not correspond to reality.  Furthermore, the State party needed to provide specific documentary evidence that there were no secret detention places.

Mr. Touzé expressed surprise that when the delegation described how the police had questioned a drug smuggler, it said that he had been questioned at home and that he had died during the interrogation due to a heart attack.  

Mr. Touzé further questioned the appointment procedure for members of the National Commission for Human Rights, and of the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture, which raised concerns about their professionalism.    

ESSADIA BELMIR, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Mauritania, raised the issue of the payment of the so-called “blood money” (diyah), requested by the family of victims.  Such an approach should be re-evaluated for those already in the criminal justice system because they could not be left to depend on the good will of the family of victims.  

Turning to foreigners in Mauritania, Ms. Belmir commended the State party for having started working on an asylum procedure.  

On solitary confinement, Ms. Belmir noted that there was a need for an overhaul of the existing rules.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had called on Mauritania to provide victims of torture and ill-treatment with rehabilitation, Ms. Belmir reminded.  

Questions by Committee Experts

The Committee Experts reiterated questions about corporal punishment, noting that punishments which were not permissible under international law could not be accepted by the Committee either.  Many Muslim countries had banned corporal punishment, which showed that there could be different interpretations of the Sharia law.  Jurisprudence of the Committee and other treaty bodies should lead Mauritania to abolish corporal punishment.    

Experts also reiterated the question about dual sentencing under the criminal justice system and the Sharia law.  Had there been any developments with respect to scientific and technical police investigations?  

Turning to the past human rights violations committed between 1989 and 1991 (Passif humanitaire), the Committee Experts wondered whether victims of torture received rehabilitation and support.  They also reiterated their questions about the guidelines for courts to order the payment of reparations.    

JENS MODVIG, Committee Chairperson, reacting to a statement by one of the members of the delegation, asked who were suspects that “required to be tortured.”

Replies by the Delegation

A member of the delegation explained that he was misunderstood when he had said that there had been no need to “torture” the drug smuggler.  All the evidence had been found with him.  There was no need to torture any suspect.  

Turning to alleged secret places of detention, the delegation denied that there were any secret basements in police stations.  

People from Senegal and Mali could obtain legal residency in Mauritania through regular channels, but not when they tried to enter the country illegally.  Those who entered the country illegally were subject to refoulement.    

The justice system had to be modernized and the police force had to become more scientific and technological.  The same applied to custody and police registers.  The authorities were taking major steps forward despite the lack of resources.              

As for the five persons from Mauritania who had not been able to attend the review of the State party’s report in front of the Committee, the delegation clarified that their visas had been found to be invalid.  

With respect to detention conditions, the delegation noted that they were not ideal, but that they had improved considerably.  The data provided by the delegation could be verified.  Turning to the issue of overcrowding, each year prisoners from Nouakchott were transferred to other prisons.

On the “blood money” (diyah), the sentence could be lessened even in the absence of the pardon by the family of victims and the State could take on itself to pay the “blood money.”

Concluding Remarks

MOHAMED LEMINE OULD SIDI, Commissioner for Human Rights, Humanitarian Action and Relations with Civil Society of Mauritania, reiterated the will of his Government to progress in the fight against torture.  Mauritania fully cooperated with all bodies and mechanisms in the area of human rights.  Mr. Ould Sidi thanked all members of the Committee for the quality of their comments and questions.

JENS MODVIG, Committee Chairperson, reminded the delegation that it could submit additional replies in writing within 48 hours.  He thanked all members of civil society from Mauritania for their participation in the dialogue with the Committee, and he asked the State party and civil society to respect each other’s role in the dialogue with the Committee.

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