By Alex Neve, Secretary General Amnesty International Canada
From all the conversations I had with survivors of human rights abuses and their relatives in the ten days I spent in Mauritania recently, one question has stayed in my mind.
A woman, whose children cannot access public schools or health care because their father is imprisoned in an unknown location, for reasons of ‘public security’, asked: “this is their view of security?”
Her husband and 13 other men have been held in a secret location since May 2011, having been convicted of charges related to terrorism.
For more than two years they have had no contact with their families nor access to lawyers. Authorities say the men are still alive but they won’t say where they are being held and will not allow visits.
The men’s children can only be registered for public schools and health care if their fathers have been properly inscribed in the new census (impossible if you are “disappeared”); or if a death certificate is available (impossible if you are still alive).
This impossible situation seems to be routine in Mauritania, particularly when it comes to trying to justify the fight against terrorism.
Security and anti-terrorism are pervasive themes in Mauritania these days. The country has watched events unfolding in other countries in the region with considerable worry, such as the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb offensive launched last year in neighbouring Mali.
Internally and externally they are under pressure to stand firm against possible threats. And of course they should.
But what is an appropriate response? Serious human rights violations are being committed in the name of security which, in the end, serves only to spread injustice and deepen insecurity.
We spent many days in the Prison Centrale, interviewing some thirty people who have been convicted on terrorism-related charges, and sentenced to punishments ranging from one year’s imprisonment to the death penalty.
Among the prisoners are a number of foreigners, including from Canada, Mali and Guinea Bissau.
All provided us with detailed descriptions of the torture they experienced in police custody, before being transferred to the prison. In terrorism-related cases prisoners can be held by the police for up to 45 days without being charged, and without access to legal counsel or family.
The list of torture methods grew distressingly long as our interviews progressed. Most frequently it involved painful, wrenching ways of incapacitating prisoners by chaining their hands and feet together, in front or behind their backs, or while being suspended from window grilles, doorways and ceiling fixtures; and then beating them repeatedly, often until prisoners lost consciousness.
And it would only end when the prisoners agreed to sign a statement confessing to any number of things, a statement that was generally not even read to them before they signed it. That statement then would become the basis, often the sole basis, for the subsequent conviction and prison sentence.
It is impossible to have any confidence in the convictions, as the abuses that all of these prisoners have endured are so serious. Torture-derived statements in which prisoners will confess to almost anything provide no guarantee that police have the right person. And this is their view of security?
Mauritanians also continue to suffer the injustice and insecurity of the most iconic global example of human rights sold short in the name of security: Guantánamo Bay. Two Mauritanians, Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz remain held there. President Obama’s 2009 and 2013 promises to close the notorious detention camp have not yet made any difference to either of them.
We met with relatives of both men. It was so impressive to hear of and see photos and videos of the campaigning they have done to draw attention to these two men’s plights. I was particularly struck to see television clips of demonstrations with the orange jumpsuits and black hoods that have been front and centre in so many Amnesty protests around the world over the years, used to good effect here as well.
Both families were particularly eager to hear me describe the three trips I took to Guantánamo Bay in 2010, even though I had of course come nowhere hear the detention camps in which the two men are held and had not caught even a glimpse of either of them. It seemed to give them something to hold onto; speaking with someone who has been in the place where their loved ones are held.
The families of Slahi and Abdel Aziz want their government to be their champion. We met with the Minister of Justice, who did confirm that Mauritania is ready to take them back. But what is needed is something more assertive. Mauritania must ask for them back.
The right way to reply to that haunting query, “that is their view of security?”, would be by seeking that return from Guantánamo; by acting to stop torture; and by ending secret detention and unfair trials. Because the best path to security comes through protecting human rights.