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COMMITTEE AGAINST TORTURE EXAMINES REPORT OF MAURITANIA

10 May 2013

The Committee against Torture today concluded its consideration of the initial report of Mauritania on how it implements the provisions of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Introducing the report, Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Khattra, Commissioner for Human Rights, Humanitarian Action and Relations with Civil Society of Mauritania, said that the country had made significant progress in combating torture, which national law defined as a crime against humanity.  Mauritania ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention in 2012 and efforts to address prison overcrowding and improve living conditions in places of detention were ongoing.  Key actors of the penitentiary system, justice, civil society and the police were trained in preventing torture, cruel and inhuman treatment.

Committee Experts commended Mauritania’s efforts to emerge from a period of political oppression and stressed that passing the laws and establishing institutions was only the first step on a long journey.  Administrative measures must be put in place to ensure that results were seen on the ground and that the still present culture of systematic torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment was eradicated.  Experts noted the situation of children in the country and the issues they faced such as a very low age of criminal responsibility at the age of seven, female genital mutilation and child labour, trafficking and exploitation.

Responding to questions and comments raised by the Committee on Wednesday, 8 May and today, the delegation stressed that the justice system of Mauritania contained fundamental provisions which systematically obliged judges and other authorities to launch investigations into all allegations of torture and that confessions obtained under torture were null and void and had no value.  Slavery was criminalized under the 2007 anti-slavery law which defined it a crime against humanity and enabled the new agency to combat the consequences of slavery to act in presumed cases of slavery.  Measures to address violence against women included the appointment in the National Human Rights Commission of a rapporteur on violence against women and a rapporteur on a national preventive mechanism. 

The delegation of Mauritania consisted of representatives from the Commissariat for Human Rights, Humanitarian Action and Relations with Civil Society; Presidency of the Republic; Ministry of Justice; Ministry of the Interior and Decentralization and the Permanent Mission of Mauritania to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The next public meeting of the Committee will be at 10 a.m. on Monday, 13 May when it will start its consideration of the combined fifth and sixth periodic report of Guatemala (CAT/C/GTM/5-6).

Report of Mauritania

The initial report of Mauritania can be read via the following link (CAT/C/MRT/1).

Presentation of the Report of Mauritania


MOHAMED ABDALLAHI OULD KHATTRA, Commissioner for Human Rights, Humanitarian Action and Relations with Civil Society of Mauritania, introducing the initial report of Mauritania, said that Mauritania was committed to its nation-building process and the building of a new society with the full involvement of women and youth.  Some of the efforts in this regard included supporting the descendants of former slaves and victims of natural disasters, as well as combating poverty throughout the country and ensuring that the poor had increased access to basic services.  The national strategy to combat corruption was in place and significant progress was being made in combating torture.  Torture was defined as a crime against humanity in the national law, and the statute of limitations was no longer applicable to this crime.  The new legal framework also created the national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles; the National Human Rights Commission exercised its offices in complete independence and was authorised to conduct visits to places of detention. 

In 2012, Mauritania ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and it was in the process of putting in place the national preventive mechanism.  It had also ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2012.  The efforts to address prison overcrowding included construction of new detention and re-education centres and measures to improve living condition of detainees, including food, hygiene, health and prevention of torture.  The key actors of the penitentiary system, justice, civil society and the police received training and sensibilization concerning the prevention of torture.  Mauritania had in place a legislative framework, a judiciary system and re-education centres to help child criminals and to apply alternative measures to detention.

Questions from Committee Experts

SATYABHOOSUN GUPT DOMAH, Committee Expert and Rapporteur on the Report of Mauritania, said that the impression of the Committee was that there was confusion in the country as to what the national institutions such as the Human Rights Commission, the police or the courts needed to do, and what the State needed to do in implementing the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which was a very specific instrument.  The Committee needed specific information about the responsibilities that the State had or had not discharged in this regard.  Positive facts were that the Constitution provided for all fundamental freedoms and liberties, including the prohibition of torture; the country’s legal system was a monist one whereby international treaties were directly incorporated in the national legislative framework; and many reforms were being carried out.  Mauritania was emerging from a period of political oppression and subjugation of vulnerable groups and was moving into a new era and this was highly commendable. 

The impression of the Committee was that Mauritania was relapsing; there was a lot of talk but not much was being seen in terms of results.  For example, what was the result on the ground of the creation of the many institutions and were the measures adopted by the Government effective?  Did this have an impact on stopping the culture of torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment?  The Committee was not yet satisfied that Mauritania was taking the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel seriously and Mr. Domah asked the delegation to provide statistics about what had been done at the grassroots levels, where the systematic use of torture continued.  Could the delegation explain the degrading treatment of women and children, justify the continuing persistence of preventive detention which seemed to be a general practice, and provide the percentage of criminal cases disposed of by mere confessions?  Were the institutions manned by credible people, was there confusion about what the national institutions and the State should do?  Where was the country going wrong?  The mistake was in the thinking that passing the laws would automatically bring results; that was only the first step on a long journey and the problem was that Mauritania stopped at legislative measures instead of proceeding with administrative measures.  Mauritania had started well, but there was the need to see the results; the Committee needed to see all the administrative measures taken towards the implementation of the provisions of the Convention.

ABDOULAYE GAYE, Committee Expert and Rapporteur on the Report of Mauritania, commended Mauritania for its efforts in presenting the initial report, even if it was late, and asked about the practical impact of the training on the ground and whether it enabled the officials to better understand, implement and comply with the Convention.  Did the medical and other personnel involved in the determination of asylum procedures apply the Istanbul Protocol?  The right of detainees to access to a lawyer was an issue of concern; for example, the legal provisions on terrorism justified prolonged custody and completely excluded the presence of a lawyer before charges were read.  People in custody should have access to a doctor and should have an automatic right to communicate with their families and inform them about their whereabouts.  Torture was not criminalized in the national legislation which caused serious problems in combating and preventing torture.  Mr. Gaye further asked whether there were any amnesty laws since the ratification of the Convention against Torture in 2012; there was a strong and consistent demand to revise the existing amnesty laws as to combat impunity and provide redress and compensation for victims of crimes of torture.

Concerning the situation in places of deprivation of liberty, Mr. Gaye said that it had deteriorated and was deplorable and asked for a list of prisons in the country, their capacity and population, and about the measures undertaken or planned to tackle overcrowding and living conditions in detention places.  What happened to the 14 persons abducted in May 2011 by armed forces from one of the prisons, of whom there was no information whatsoever?  A Committee Expert asked the delegation to also provide more information on the refugee and asylum seekers determination procedures, and the non-refoulement process; statistics and measures taken to combat trafficking in persons; the revision of the Anti-Slavery Law and the situation of Mauritanian refugees returning from Senegal.

On the issue of living standards in places of detention and deprivation of liberty, a Committee Expert asked the delegation to provide more information about the construction of new detention centres and prisons.  What was being done to put an end to acts of torture in places of detention and what sanctions were being meted out to those responsible for torture and ill-treatment?  Another Expert noted the situation of children in Mauritania and noted several issues of concern they faced across the country, such as the very low age of criminal responsibility at the age of seven, female genital mutilation, the application of Sharia, trafficking in children and others, and inquired about the holistic vision on children, which was necessary to address those concerns. 

Rape and sexual violence against women were widespread in the country, but because of cultural constraints, many victims chose not to file charges.  Experts wondered how those crimes were being dealt with by the State and what was being done in practice in the prosecution and sentencing of those crimes and asked how many cases of rape and sexual and domestic violence had been reported, prosecuted and convicted in the past three years.  A special prosecutor on slavery would largely contribute to the eradication of this practice throughout the country, noted Committee Experts, who asked the delegation to provide more information about the application of the anti-slavery law and the competence of traditional and official courts in its application.  They also asked how many cases of slavery were brought before domestic courts and how many convictions there were, both for traditional slavery and crimes of trafficking in persons.

Other issues taken up by the Committee Experts included detention of asylum seekers and how they were assessed for acts of torture by other States and about lawyers in the country, how many they were and how they were organized.  They noted the high risks of being subjected to torture and inhuman and degrading treatment by the police and security forces in prisons and places of detention.  There were serious flaws in the monitoring of the places of deprivation of liberty and not much had been done to put in place effective monitoring mechanisms for the prevention of torture.

CLAUDIO GROSSMAN, Committee Chairperson, asked how many investigations had been opened when authorities were informed about the existence of torture, and how many convictions were delivered for acts of torture.  Did Mauritania intend to include the prohibition of torture in its national legislation?  There were informal places of detention in the country and this was a serious problem as it could open doors into crimes and abuses; were there any investigations conducted on this issue?

SATYABHOOSUN GUPT DOMAH, Committee Expert and Rapporteur on Mauritania, reiterated the responsibility of the State to take legislative, administrative and judicial measures to implement the Convention and wondered whether there was a commitment of the State to avoid abdication of its responsibilities to institutions.  Was this indeed the situation on the ground; if so, it was a serious problem.

Comments by the Delegation

MOHAMED ABDALLAHI OULD KHATTRA, Commissioner for Human Rights, Humanitarian Action and Relations with Civil Society of Mauritania, thanked the Experts for their questions and comments which were very relevant and showed the appreciation of the Committee of the initial report of Mauritania, which was of paramount importance for both the Committee and the country itself.  Responding to the comments made about the composition of the delegation, Mr. Khattra said that it demonstrated the importance the State attached to the Convention and this report. 

Mauritania had reiterated its commitment to combat and prevent torture during its Universal Periodic Review in November 2012 by accepting all the recommendations related to the prevention of torture.  The Amnesty Law 1993 addressed the painful events from the period 1987 to 1990; working in cooperation with the victims and their families, the State had recognized its responsibility for those events and had provided redress for the victims.  Concerning the question on the disappearance of 14 persons from a prison, the delegation said they were convicted terrorists who had been transferred from the civilian prison.  Training of judges and magistrates in detecting cases of torture was being done through the curriculum of the Magistrate’s School.  Further training workshops were provided on different human rights issues of concern, in cooperation with the National Human Rights Commission and the Association for the Prevention of Torture.  Training topics included genocide, torture, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detention and racial discrimination. 

A 2007 law had criminalized slavery and defined it as a crime against humanity; it gave a possibility for individuals to denounce acts of slavery and enabled the new agency to combat the consequences of slavery to act in presumed cases of slavery.  Under the 2007 law, 15 cases had been filed for presumed cases of slavery and were being followed by the public prosecution office.  The sentences condemning cases of slavery of children had been handed down in 2011 by a court in Nouakchott.

The judiciary in Mauritania was independent from the executive and the structures of magistrates were managed by magistrates themselves.  The national Human Rights Commission had been visiting places of detention since 2010 and submitted its reports to the President; the reports were made public on the website of the Commission.  The Commission was currently headed by a woman and she had just appointed a rapporteur on violence against women and a rapporteur on a national preventive mechanism.  Civil society organizations had three centres providing medical and psychological assistance to women victims of violence, including for victims of domestic violence and victims of rape.  The age of marriage was set at 18.  Several legislative and institutional measures had been undertaken to combat domestic violence, female genital mutilation and trafficking in persons, including the ratification of a number of international instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the International Labour Organization Convention 105 on the abolition of forced labour.

Mauritania had passed early on the law punishing trafficking in persons, which drew on international legislation to describe that type of offence and so allowed judges to hand down clear and adequate sentences.  Sentences for crimes of trafficking in persons were two-fold and included imprisonment and financial fines.  There was a set of rules in place preventing exploitation of domestic workers and ensuring their protection. 

Pre-trial detention could only be decided on by a judge and legal provisions ensured that it was difficult to institute; pre-trial detention was possible to ensure safety of detainees, prevent their flight and prevent occurrence of new crimes.  The Mauritanian justice system contained fundamental provisions which systematically obliged judges and other authorities to launch investigations into all allegations of torture and confessions obtained under torture were null and void and had no value.  Corporal punishment was clearly prohibited in the Order N°3 on criminal protection of children and parents found guilty of corporal punishment could be stripped of their parental rights.  The age of criminal responsibility was 15 years and was underpinned by a belief that a child under the age of 18 committing a crime or offence should be given another chance and be part of a rehabilitation programme.

Overcrowding made it difficult to manage the situation in prisons and there were cases of violence in places of detention, which were investigated by the authorities and convictions had been handed down.  No one could invoke exceptional circumstances to commit torture, not even in cases of obedience of superiors, which was prohibited unless in full accordance with the law.  Officials found guilty of acts of maltreatment were dismissed: seven had been dismissed in 2010, two in 2011 and six in 2012.  Custody was regulated by the Criminal Code, which defined its conditions, duration and the rights of detainees.

Mauritania had a monist legal system in which international treaties prevailed, but the domestic legislative framework was still harmonized with the international law.  The definition of enforced disappearances would be included in the codification framework following the ratification of the Convention on Enforced Disappearances.  The Constitutional Council was an independent court set up to monitor conformity with the Constitution of laws, treaties and regulations; its decisions could not be subjected to any recourse and were published.

Follow up Questions and Comments by the Committee Experts

SATYABHOOSUN GUPT DOMAH, Committee Expert and Rapporteur on the Report of Mauritania, noted the lack of a definition of torture in the domestic legislation and asked why the country took so long to harmonize its domestic legal framework with international law.  The definition of terrorism was too large, the moratorium on the death penalty should be converted to full cessation, and the legal institutions must abide to the minimum United Nations standards and human rights standards of the treaties that Mauritania was a party to; it must enable its judges to be proactive, ensure timely access to a council and medical assistance for its detainees, raise the age of criminal responsibility and address frontally the problems of street children and female genital mutilation. 

ABDOULAYE GAYE, Committee Expert and Rapporteur on the Report of Mauritania, took up again the issue of custody and noted that 15 days in custody was a long time, especially when one did not have access to a lawyer or a doctor.  There was clear evidence of torture being committed by the police and those in charge of detainees; this must be further studied, especially for the case of alleged terrorists.   

Other Experts took up the issue of torture in prisons and asked about the status of two individual cases involving the death of prisoners, both in Dar Naim prison.  Other issues that were raised included the system of military justice and what happened if a soldier committed an act of torture; the status of the Bill on Asylum and whether it took up the issue of the emergency asylum seeking procedure; and the steps planned to establish the real mechanism for monitoring of places of detention in compliance with the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. 

The delegation underlined that there was no legislation defining the right to redress to victims of torture and Experts said that this was an obligation of the State under the provisions of the Convention.  It was a high time to define it more clearly in the law and for the Government to commit to implementation of redress and reparation measures in practice.  It was difficult to obtain good information on legislation on rape and statistics on rape cases; what were the plans to ensure that women victims of rape were protected and that perpetrators were investigated and convicted in line with the provisions of the Convention?

CLAUDIO GROSSMAN, Committee Chairperson, mentioned gaps in legislation and asked about cases involving redress, rehabilitation and guarantees of non-repetition for victims of torture; how many such cases had there been and how many had resulted in convictions.

Responses by the Delegation
   
Recent years had seen an upsurge of terrorism in the region and Mauritania was not an exception and saw clashes between terrorists and the army; the threat to citizens and the security had been real.  Mauritania had arrested the offending Salafists and had handed down convictions.  Following the occupation of northern Mali by terrorists, Mauritania was obliged to undertake preventive attacks on terrorist camps in the territory of the brotherly nation of Mali.  The Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery had visited Mauritania twice and the recommendations he had made were currently being implemented.  During his second visit, the Special Rapporteur had been particularly interested in the situation of judges and lawyers and local organizations working on slavery in the country. 

Mauritania had a dictatorial regime in its past, like many other countries, under which flagrant violations of human rights had been taking place.  The old regime demonstrated a clear lack of political will to comply with its international obligations, but the new political regime in place since 2009 put in place a number of measures to improve the human rights situation in the country.  On humanitarian liability, the State did not decide on compensation levels and there was a procedure used by non-governmental organizations which were responsible for defending the rights of victims of events up to 1999.  Dialogue was ongoing and political will existed to cooperate with international institutions to find a solution to this problem.

The justice system safeguarded individual and political rights and represented the instance of last resort for all.  The rights of victims were not void and it was possible for civil and criminal procedures to run in parallel.  The two cases of death in Dar Naim prison had been investigated by authorities and adequate action had been taken. 

Following the review of Mauritania’s penitentiary system conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the system had been reformed and measures were being undertaken to reduce overcrowding, such as management of the prison population.  As a result, violence in prisons had been curbed.  Mauritania was taking every possible judicial measure to address terrorism and had established special prisons to which it had transferred some dangerous terrorists; they had received visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross and could communicate with their families.

The 15 day long custody was partially due to the size of the country, distances and the time necessary to travel.  Military personnel accused of committing an act of torture were tried by civilian courts.  Rape was prosecuted and punished and over 40 cases had been prosecuted this year alone.  Efforts were being made to harmonize legislation with the provisions of the Convention against Torture. 

Closing Remarks

CLAUDIO GROSSMAN, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for all the information provided during the dialogue which would be useful in drafting the concluding observations next week. 

MOHAMED ABDALLAHI OULD KHATTRA, Commissioner for Human Rights, Humanitarian Action and Relations with Civil Society, reiterated Mauritania’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights and noted the great strides forward that were made in a very short period of time.  Mauritania would step up the measures to put in place the national preventive mechanism, draft and implement the national plan of action as per the Committee’s recommendations, and undertake other measures to implement the provisions of the Convention.


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