Afghan Landmine Blast Kills 10 Young Girls

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Ten young girls have been killed by a landmine explosion in eastern Afghanistan.

The children were collecting firewood when one of them accidentally struck the mine with an axe, according to Chapahar district governor Mohammad Seddiq Dawlatzai.

The victims were aged nine to 13. Two other girls were critically injured and are being treated in hospital.

“An old mine left over from the time of the jihad (against Soviet troops in the 1980s) exploded, killing 10 girls and wounding two others,” Mr Dawlatzai said.

Afghan villagers pray over the graves of the victims
However police chief General Abdullah Stanikzai said Taliban insurgents were to blame.

Since 1989, when the Soviets withdrew after a 10-year military occupation, nearly 700,000 mines and more than 15m other explosives left over from decades of war have been destroyed, according to UN figures.

But despite international clearance efforts, more than three decades of war have left Afghanistan one of the most heavily-mined countries in the world.

The explosives were laid during three recent conflicts: the 1980s war against the Russians, the 1990s civil war, and during fighting between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban before they were ousted from power in 2001.

Afghanistan is one of the most heavily-mined countries in the world
The Taliban also plant bombs, or improvised explosive devices, to target Afghan and Nato troops but these regularly kill civilians.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly appealed to the insurgents as well as the Nato-led forces in Afghanistan to avoid civilian casualties.

In the first six months of 2012, 1,145 Afghan civilians were killed and around 2,000 wounded, mostly by roadside bombs.

A car bomb explosion injured several people in Kabul
Women and children account for about 30% of this year’s casualties.

Meanwhile one person has been killed and at least 30 injured in a blast in the capital Kabul.

It happened outside the compound of US military contractor Contrack. Afghan police say the attacker drove a car packed with explosives into the compound’s wall.
Sky News.

News from Iran – Week 39 – 2012

Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani
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Prisoners’ News

A-Transfers

  • Kurdish political prisoner Shahram Elyasi, servinglife imprisonment, transferred from Evin prison to Rajai Shahr prison

B- Arrests/Incarcerations

  • Nursing mothers Zahra Nik-Aein and Taraneh Torabi sent to prison to serve their sentences along with their infants
  • Mehdi Rafsanjani arrested after being summoned to court on return from spending 2 years in the UK
  • Journalist & former Gorgan city council member, Abdolnaser Mahimani, arrested in Tehran while visiting his son
  • Adeleh Cheraghi arrested September 24. Her husband labor activist Alireza Askari recently released on bail
  • Ahmadinejad’s media advisor Aliakbar Javanfekr arrested & sent to Evin to start serving 6 months sentence
  • Mazandaran Uni student blogger Mani Tavakoli arrested on his way back home from Tehran. Whereabouts unknown
  • Activist Shokrollah Nazeri arrested after a search of his home. Whereabouts unknown
  • Prominent lawyer and member of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre, Mohammad-Ali Dadkhah, began his 9-year prison sentence in Evin
  • Hasan Maadikhah taken to Evin to serve his 2.5 year sentence

C-Liberations

  • Green activist Mohamad Rahbari was released on Sept 11 after completing 6 months
  • Esmaeil Salmanpour, a Sarand earthquake relief worker was re-arrested and re-released
  • Hamid-Reza Moseibian, Behrooz Alavi, Hooman Taheri, and Vahed Kholousi - detained earthquake relief volunteers – released on bail
  • Rajabali Dashab (Babak) released after serving 3 year sentence
  • Activist Ali Samadpour released on bail after 83 days in detention

D-Other News

  • Azari activist Hamidreza Ranjbar sentenced to 3 yrs+74 lashes by court in Tabriz
  • Azari activist Mohamad Ahadi summoned by Court in Khoi for second time in 3 months
  • Labour activist Farhad Ebrahimi summoned to appear in court in Sanandaj
  • Sepehrdad Saheban summoned to Branch 23 of Tehran Revolutionary Court
  • Deteriorating health condition of political prisoner Fayzollah Arabsorkhi. Medical treatment not provided
  • Death row prisoner Zaniar Moradi denied medical treatment
  • Mohammad Rigi convicted of drug trafficking was hanged in Evin
  • 8 inmates executed en-masse in Ghezelhesar prison
  • 5 people sentenced for their Facebook activities
  • Mahvash Sabet Shahriari, one of the Baha’i leaders, suffering from osteoporosis but denied hip replacement surgery
  • Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani

    Foad Khanjani in urgent need to be hospitalised for back problems

  • Detainee Mohamad Eskandarian in need of medical attention for damaged ear after torture during 4 months of detention without charge
  • In all, 11 prisoners in Rajaei Shahr prison are being denied urgent medical treatment
  • At least 7 prominent activist arrested in West Azerbaijan, Iran ; charges, status, and whereabouts unknown
  • At least 15 people executed in the last two days in Tehran and Karaj

News of injustice in Iran

  • Iran among the top six worst performers in Freedom House’s Net Freedom Report
  • 17 Sunni teachers banned from teaching in Kurdistan province
  • Shargh Daily, reformist paper,banned again. Managing Editor and cartoonist Hadi Heidari summoned by judiciary over a cartoon deemed insulting to army

University – Culture

  • Severe floods in Rasht
  • IMF: Iran is experiencing a brain drain at the rate of 180,000 individuals per year
  • Iran cleric declares that temporary marriage is the only option for widowed women
  • New iPhone 5 selling for equivalent of US$1,320 in Tehran bazaar

Protests

  • Iranian activists from US, Canada and Europe went to New York to protest Ahmadinejad’s speech. A group attacked and assaulted the IRI foreign ministry spokesperson Ramin Mehmanparast
  • 10,000 more workers signed a petition against living conditions

Iran Economy

  • Toman-US Dollar rates hit 2720; Gold coins reach new record high 1,400,000 Toman
  • Luxury car imports up 30%

Iran abroad

  • Turkish trade deficit falls on gold sales to Iran
  • Ahmadinejad made his final visit as President to the United Nations General Assembly in New York
  • France, Germany, Britain want more sanctions on Iran
  • Argentina and Iran to discuss 1990s bombings – after Argentina threatened to close its embassy in Tehran
  • Iran looking to build relations with Afghanistan and India through Chahbahar port
  • Swiss-based Vitol trades Iranian fuel oil, skirting sanctions
  • Head of the European Union demanded the release of Mousavi, Rahnavard and Karoubi & wants a meeting with them
  • India’s imports from Iran fell 5% between July and August

Politics in Iran

  • Iran made additional claims about what it calls “foreign sabotage”
  • Iranian Minister of Culture threatens to boycott the 2013 Oscars in the wake of the anti-Islam film

Miscellaneous

  • Iran readies domestic Internet, reportedly blocks Google, Gmail, etc
  • (again) and then had to provide regime personnel with circumvention tools so that they can maintain access. The Minister of Communications denied these reports.

News from Iran – Week 27 – 2012

Iranian nationals Sayed Mansour Mousavi, left, and Ahmad Abolfathi Mohammad, right, are seen in this June 27, 2012 file photo in the Nairobi magistrates court in Nairobi, Kenya. (Khalil Senosi/AP)
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News of the Prisoners

A- Transfers

  • After 3 months in Intel detention, cultural activist Jabar Yebari has been moved to Karoon prison in Ahvaz.
  • Amin Zargarnezhad transferred to solitary in Tabriz prison.

B- Arrests/Incarcerations

  • Idris Kaveh, Bohran Keyvanpour, Hamid Parhizkar, Kurdish villagers, arrested in Nei, and Shamzin Ahmadnezhad, Shahoo Partavi, Mohammad-Amin Salimi , Mohammad Savarkar, Asad Soleimannezhad, Khalil Zibaei recently arrested in Mahabad.
  • After 3 days on medical leave Baha’i professor Farhad Sadeghi returned to prison.
  • Student activist Navid Gorgin was arrested in Esfahan last week.
  • Ahmad Hashemi former president Khatami’s Inspector General at the Interior Ministry started serving 5 years sentence.
  • Greens supporter journalist Ali Moslehi was arrested in Kashan.

C-Liberations

  • Journalist/civil activist Aref Darvish was released from prison after completing 1 year sentence.
  • Cyrus Fatehi, workers’ rights activist, released on bail.
  • Mitra Homayouni, workers’ rights activist, released on bail.
  • Journalist Nazanin Khosravani released for one week after posting bail.
  • Blogger/Human Rights activist Hossein Ronaghi Maleki has been released on bail on medical furlough.
  • Saeed Marzban, workers’ rights activist, released on bail.
  • Labor activist Maziar Mehrpour has been released on bail.
  • Farhad Sadeghi released from Rejaei Shahr on medical furlough.
  • Temporary release of imprisoned Christian convert Mehrdad Sajjadi on high bail.
  • Masoud Salimpour, workers’ rights activist, released on bail.

D-Other News

  • Cleric blogger Arash Honarvar Shojaei has started a hunger strike upon return to Evin after expiry of Medical furlough. He fell unconscious on the 4th day and was transferred to clinic.
  • In protest against transfer from ward 12 to ward 10 in Rajaei Shahr prison, 53 prisoners refuse food rations; 40 announce hunger strike


News of injustice in Iran

  • Samin Ehsani, Baha’i children’s rights activist, sentenced to 5 years in prison.
  • Semnan Court of Appeals has sentenced Elham Roozbehei to 24 months in prison.
  • Court of Appeals in Semnan has sentenced Baha’i Taraneh Torabi to 20 months in prison.
  • The two men sentenced to death following their two previous convictions for alcohol consumption have had their death sentences commuted and each received 80 lashes.
  • One public hanging in Ahar on Sunday.
  • 4 hangings on Monday, 1 publicly and 3 in Semnan.


University – Culture

  • The Jameh Mosque and Gonbad-e Qabus Tower have been approved as World Heritage sites.
  • Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has been invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
  • 1070 satellite dishes seized in Northern Iran.
  • Tehran International puppet theater festival kicks off.
  • Modernist Iranian painter Mansureh Hosseini dies at 86.
  • Mahmoud Dowlatabadi ‘s “The Colonel” just published in the US.
  • Police raided and disrupted the Pen Society meeting held by Dr. Khazali and prevented Mohammad Nourizad from entering the meeting.
  • Another concert cancelled because men and women were not separated.
  • Misagh Afshar, Student in Beheshti University expelled because he is Baha’i.


Protests

  • Activists protest in support of Abr Forest.
  • Families of detained workers’ rights activists meet to protest
  • Disabled people demonstrated in front of the General Health Organization of Iran’s offices to protest the non-payment of disability benefits.
  • Telecom workers to strike and protest working conditions in Shiraz.


Economy in Iran

  • Ministry of industry and mines raises interest rates on loans to industry from 11% to 21%.
  • Iran discovers 6 billion barrels of new oil reserves.
  • Iran automobile production drops 40% this year.
  • 4,000 Iranian brick workers lose jobs after plant closure.
  • No Iranian crude imports for Japan in July.
  • Sanctions cut Iran’s July oil exports to near 1 million barrels per day.


Iran  abroad

Iranian nationals Sayed Mansour Mousavi, left, and Ahmad Abolfathi Mohammad, right, are seen in this June 27, 2012 file photo in the Nairobi magistrates court in Nairobi, Kenya. (Khalil Senosi/AP)


  • Salehi, Iran Foreign Minister briefly detained by Lanarca airport security last week in Cyprus.
  • U.N. publishes report on Iran arms trade with Syria.
  • Iran calls for extraordinary OPEC meeting.
  • Qatar frees 8 jailed Iran fishermen.
  • Saudi Arabia has not resumed issuing visas to Iranian pilgrims following the suspension on the death of the Crown Prince
  • Iran summons Afghan diplomat.
  • Saudi decided not to execute Iranian prisoners. Sentences commuted to 15 years in jail.
  • Iran proposes opening of bank branch in Mumbai, India.
  • The 2 Iranians arrested in Kenya with 15 kgs of explosives are members of IRGC Qods force which executes terror attacks against targets outside Iran.
  • Iran arrests two men on charges of spying for Azerbaijan; Iranian ambassador to Baku recalled.
  • Frankfurt prosecutor office: Iran’s Vice Consulate is accused of sexually molesting children.
  • Iran invites Egypt’s new Islamist president to non-aligned summit in Tehran in August.


Politics in Iran

  • Iranian authorities ban selling food and transport services 2 foreign (read Afghan) citizens without residence permit.
  • Foreign Ministry rejects anti-Semitic remarks of first Vice President Rahimi.
  • The government retreats from implementing the second phase of targeted subsides.
  • Iran dismisses militia commanders involved in the British embassy attack.
  • Speaker of Syrian parliament to visit Iran.
  • Tehran to host conference on ‘women and Islamic awakening’ next week.
  • Reza Taghipour, Minister of Communications, admitted surveillance and illegally intercepting citizens’ conversations.


Miscellaneous

  • One hour “temporary marriage” (Islamic prostitution contract) in Iran at $35-$50/hour.
  • 63% of Iranians vote to stop Uranium-enrichment in online poll on Iran’s national TV’s website.

News from Iran – Week 24 – 2012

Abdolfatah Soltani
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News of the Prisoners

A- Transfers

  • Javad Alikhani, Farshad Ghorbanpour, Saeed Jalalifar, Saeed Matinpour and Arash Saghar  transferred to solitary in ward 209.
  • Bahman Amouei transferred to solitary in ward 209 and then to Rejaei Shahr prison.Abdolrahman, Jamshid, Mansour and Taha Heydari, Ahvazi political prisoners sentenced to death, moved from Karoon river to an unknown location
  • Amir Moavi, Ahvazi political prisoner sentenced to death, moved from Karoon river to an unknown location.
  • Hamid Reza Moradi Sarvestani, ,dervish Gonabadi, hospitalized in Taleghani hospital.

B- Arrests/Incarcerations

  • Baha’i Adel Fanaeian arrested and taken to Semnan prison to start serving his 6 years sentence.
  • Student activist Siavash Hatam started serving his 1 year + 4months sentence in Evin prison.
  • Baha’i Faran Khan Yaghma was arrested in a violent raid of his home in Sari.
  • Former student activist Mostafa Nazari arrested in a raid of his home in Shiraz.
  • Jamal Zahedi, member of Moktab e Ghoran arrested in Sanandaj.
  • Amin Zargarnezhad, leftist activist, arrested in Tabriz.
  • Documentary film maker Mohammad Nourizad detained for 12 hours.

C-Liberations

  • Shirollah Dargahi, grandfather of imprisoned student activist Arash Sadeghi has been released on bail.
  • Nima Dehghan released on bail in Shiraz.
  • Afshin Ehsanian, Baha’i, freed at the end of his 10 months sentence.
  • Farid Emadi released on bail in Shiraz.
  • Nasrin Ghadiri, Baha’i, freed at the end of her 2 years sentence.
  • Keyvan Karami, Baha’i, freed at the end of his 10 months sentence.
  • Farham (Hadi) Masoumi, Baha’i, freed at the end of his 10 months sentence.
  • Kaviz Noozdahi Baha’i, freed at the end of his 2 years sentence.
  • Sima Rajabian, Baha’i, freed at the end of her 2 years sentence.
  • Sarir Sadeghi released on bail in Shiraz.
  • Afsaneh Toghir, student of Tabriz University, was released.
  • Hooman Zarei released on bail in Shiraz.


Abdolfatah Soltani

Abdolfatah Soltani

D-Other News

  • Mostafa Daneshjou, Reza Entesari ,  Amir Eslami, Afshin Karampour, Hamid Reza Moradi Sarvestani andFarshid Yadollahi on hunger strike in Evin 350.
  • Imprisoned journalist Mehdi Mahmoudian begins ‘indefinite fast’ to protest house arrest of green leaders.
  • Hossein Ronaghi Maleki ended hunger strike
  • 50 guards stormed ward 350 while prisoners were holding memorial service for Hoda Saber.
  • Imprisoned Human Rights attorney Abdolfatah Soltani refuses to be transferred to hospital handcuffed.
  • Ten of political prisoners in ward 350 Evin refused to see visitors as a show of solidarity.


News of injustice in Iran

  • Naser Abdi, Mehrdad Aghapour, Saber Ahmadi, Satar Ahmadi-Far, Mohsen Ali-Shahi, Nader Ameri-Saharghi, Mohammad Asadi, Pedram Asgari Davadgar, Tohid Aslani, Peyman Atash-Bonab, Javad Ayouzi, Alireza Azheri, Abolfazl Bakhshpour, Vahid Barzegari, Reza Bordbar-Jamalabadi, Mohammad Chenari, Hamed Daneshpour-Zendabadi, Behjat Faramarzi, Hamid Ghasemi, Ramin Gholipour, Kioumarz Ghorbani-Niknam, Mahiar Ghorbani, Alireza Hosseinzadeh, Saman Jahanpour, Ali Jebrailzadeh, Hossein Moghtader Ehsani, Ali-Asgar Mokhtarpour, Seyyed Morteza Mousavi, Hamed Niknampour-Aliloo, Masoud Peidaei, Jafar Pouryaeeghi, Ali Rafepour Ayouzi, Mojtaba Sabagh-Atefi, Reza Shiri, Faraj Taghiloo, Nouroldin Zarivar,Mohammad Esmaili, protesters against Lake Urmiah drying up, sentenced to 6 months in prison + 30 lashes.
  • Reza Abri, Azeri activist, sentenced by Appeals to 1 year.
  • Author, translator and Women’s rights activist Noushin Ahmadi has been sentenced to 1 year suspended for 5 years.
  • Rasool Amini, Kurdish activist from Sardasht has been condemned to 5 years imprisonment and exile to Kerman prison.
  • Vahed Doosti, Kurdish political activist, sentenced to 1 year in prison and sent to Sanandaj prison to serve his term.
  • Ebrahim Farajzadeh, Azeri activist, sentenced by Appeals to 6 months.
  • Court of Appeals has sentenced Sajedeh Kianoush Rad to 1 year suspended for 5 years.
  • Court of Appeals has upheld 10 years sentence of political prisoner Sedigheh Moradi on charges of affiliation with MKO.
  • Student activist Omid Rezaei has been sentenced to 2 years on charges of insulting the Leader and anti-regime propaganda
  • Rahman Sobhani, Kurdish political activist, sentenced to 6 months in prison and sent to Sanandaj prison to serve his term.
  • Ali-Hossein Tahmtan, Azeri activist, sentenced by Appeals to 6 months.
  • Two people hanged in Zahedan on Saturday.
  • Two public hangings on Monday in Bushehr.
  • One person hanged in Isfahan prison on Wednesday.


University – Culture

  • Tehran cinema shut for selling women Euro 2012 tickets.
  • Iranian actress arrested for not observing the Hejab rules.
  • Maziar Falahi’s concert was cancelled after police stormed the venue and arrested women for improper Hejab
  • Purge of Azad university directors: 42 replaced.
  • Tehran police chief: Over 4.5 million copies of immoral and illegal videos and computer games seized.
  • Intelligence and security stopped funeral of Iranian musician Hassan Kasaei.


Protests

  • 400 workers from Jian Company threatened to start a strike as they have not been paid for four months.
  • Hundreds of workers from the Parsian Company started a strike to protest not being paid for three months.
  • Fifty workers of green space in Ahwaz started a strike as a result of not having been paid for three months.
  • More than 120 workers of Keyvan Factory in Hamedan gathered in front of the factory to protest three months of delayed payment.


Economy in Iran

  • Iran plans to become hub for power transit to Europe.
  • The price of bread went up by 25%.
  • Iran Central Bank announces an official inflation rate of 22.2% for the month of May.
  • Last 3 monthly inflation rates in Iran per Central Bank: Esfand 21.5% – Farvardin 21.8% – Ordibehesht 22%.
  • 30% unemployment amongst 17-30 year old’s.
  • $1 = 1820 tomans on Saturday, 1825 on Sunday, euro at 2300 tomans.
  • Bread prices up 600% since December 2010.
  • 7 countries cleared from US sanctions (apart from 11 others), India, South Korea, Turkey, South Africa, Taiwan, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
  • Thirty workers of the Metal Industry Company have not been paid for three months.
  • Iran and Malaysia increase trade exchange.


Iran  abroad

  • Ahmadinejad meets with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Afghanistan’s Karzai in Shanghai.
  • Foreign ministry official goes to Cuba.
  • Tehran summons Saudi envoy over executed Iranians.
  • Russian FM Lavrov arrives in Iran
  • European Parliament condemns Iran’s violation of minorities’ rights.


Politics in Iran

  • Mohsen Rezaie to run for Iran presidency again.
  • Trade union representatives banned from talking to media about rise in prices.
  • Qom Marja complain about inflation.
  • Janatabad church in Tehran closed by authorities.


Miscellaneous

  • Mysterious explosion on Pasdar Street in city of Ilam.


#Mauritania: On The Edge

Harsh Desert Conditions
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Update of an article which originally appeared in Zenith Online in April 2012, when it seemed that all Mauritania’s sources of discontent were erupting at once. But protests are nothing new in this land where a coup has been the answer to every political ill, whether real or imagined, for decades.

Operating in a Constitutional Vacuum

General Aziz

The coup in which the Aziz regime seized power in 2008 created a wave of protest, which continued despite General Aziz switching to civilian garb and claiming a democratic victory in the 2009 presidential election. After a year in which they failed to complete national registration, failed to maintain dialogue with the opposition, and postponed legislative, parliamentary and municipal elections indefinitely, the Aziz government is no longer teetering on the brink of legitimacy: it fell off that precipice back in November 2011 when the mandate of the government expired. The only legally elected official in Mauritania is now the president, Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz. Many of those who accused the junta of merely paying lip-service to democracy in order to add a veneer of respectability and secure regional and international acceptance (and funding) are now feeling fully vindicated.

Anti-government protests which resurfaced last year gradually increased since February 2012 to become a daily occurrence in Nouakchott, Nouadhibou and other towns further afield. Incidents of strikes have also increased, with actions by fishermen, mining workers, teachers, college professors and students. Even a group of administrators for the national registration programme threatened a strike over pay and conditions. Throughout all this, the junta continues to impose constitutional and legislative changes, and to enter into financial and trade agreements with foreign investors, lenders, and trade partners.

Neighbourhood Watch

Mauritania map

Geographically, Mauritania is a foreign invention. The uncomfortably angular shape of Mauritania’s north eastern borders were decided long ago by colonial powers in London and Paris. There are few links with London now, although last October, William Hague did become the first the British Foreign Secretary to visit. But deep ties with France persist, and many are watching to see how Hollande’s victory in the French presidential election will impact the country. The neighbours who inhabit the other side of those awkward borders are also subject to the vagaries of Mauritania’s fickle nature. Western Sahara lost it’s southern region to Morocco when Mauritania decided to withdraw from occupation after being outclassed by the POLISARIO rebel force in 1979. This land that only time remembers, and which the world tries to ignore, now presses in awkward silence against the north-western border, a permanent reminder of Mauritania’s humiliating defeat, tribal hegemony and political naivety.

During the relatively brief 1989 conflict with Senegal, tens of thousands were forcibly expelled or repatriated between the two countries. The enmity was eventually resolved, but there is no great bond between them, as the April2012 crackdown on Senegalese workers and residents in Nouadhibou demonstrates. While Mauritania worked with the UN HCR to repatriate some of the Senegal refugees, a process which was declared complete only in March 2012, those in Mali were never even counted. In a peculiarly schizophrenic episode, tens of thousands of refugees displaced by the unrest in Mali are now being sheltered in Mauritania. In Mali’s case, there is an almost total lack of respect for its sovereignty: Mauritania maintains close associations with the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad) and conducts frequent military sorties supposedly targeting AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) – even if those targets turn out to be civilians. With the introduction in May 2012 of a new residency tax for all foreign nationals of 30,000 MRO per person, including children, Mauritania now appears to be in breach of two clauses of its 1963 accord with Mali, which prohibits both taxation on citizens and uninvited military presence.

As a member of the Arab League, Mauritania has always had close relations with the Gulf States, although we are encouraged by unreliable media sources to consider some, for example Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, as being closer than others. Once deeply indebted to Muammar Gaddafi’s patronage, Mauritania was an unexpected choice as chair of the African Union’s special committee on Libya during the 2011 uprising. It was also one of the last of the Arab states to officially recognize the National Transitional Council, and entertained visitors from both sides during last year’s conflict.  This year finds Mauritania playing host to former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, after an improbable arrest (which France claimed to have a hand with) and showing no signs of releasing him from “detention” any time soon.

Islamic in Moderation

One of only four Islamic Republics in the world, Mauritania might be expected to enjoy close relations with Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but this is not the case. Relations with Iran did seem warm last September, when they received Ahmadinejad and his entourage on the way to and from the UN General Assembly in New York, then seemed to have cooled by March, when Mauritania voted in favour of extending the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur’s mandate. But by early April, Iran had “repatriated” former Al Qaeda strategist Mahfouz Ould al Walid aka Abu Hafs al Mauritani, who arrived to join his family, already returned from Iran. For company, they have one of Osama bin Laden’s former wives and her children, while Mali is fast becoming the Al Qaeda time-share capital of Africa.

Mauritania is reportedly keeping al Walid in detention and there are unconfirmed reports that he has refused visits and food in protest at being pressured to meet with delegations from “foreign powers”. Such reports have all the hallmarks of a smokescreen intended to dampen observers’ inclinations to link his presence in Mauritania with reports of increasing AQIM activity in the Sahel, or indeed with the recent spate of allegedly successful US drone attacks on Al Qaeda leadership figures. By all accounts, Mauritania is firmly against terrorism, and its preferred brand of moderate Islam is jihad-free. In fact the government has carved out a cosy niche as a player in the global war on terror, with its lucrative funding opportunities. This might get a boost due to the level of hysteria about Mali. For development funding, the EU remains an important source of funds and is joined by Japan, Spain, China and others. All of these donors surely know that their funds are being sieved through a mesh of corruption but they seem unperturbed.

Not Just Desert

Harsh Desert Conditions

Despite it’s massive land area of over 1 million km2, the majority of Mauritania’s population – which is roughly the same as that of Berlin – is concentrated in the capital Nouakchott, and the port of Nouadhibou. These cities lie on the West coast where the Sahara desert meets Mauritania’s vast fishing grounds in the Atlantic ocean. While the sea provides a wealth of fish, not much reaches land: most of it is destined for export after processing in huge factory ships. The European Union recently ordered its fleet to cease fishing in the waters, as the quota has been reached and their agreement expires in July 2012. Meanwhile, China has moved in as another pelagic fishing partner in a deal that was denounced as unfavourable and suspect.

The vast desert, though inhospitable, is also rich in natural resources such as iron, copper, gold and gypsum. One of the major criticisms levelled at the government concerns mining rights sold to foreign companies, such as Canada’s Kinross, on terms which fail to provide a reasonable return. Mining workers appear to be trapped in a cycle of industrial action and broken or half-kept promises, although an unprecedented and costly 5-day strike by 1500 Kinross workers in early June appears to have improved their situation.

Decades of desertification and increasing frequency of severe drought have pushed people from a life of humble self-sufficiency as smallholders in rural villages to the cities. It’s a race for survival, with the edge of Africa as the finishing line. But there are few opportunities for skilled workers or university graduates in the cities, fewer still for semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers with only a rudimentary education. The towns were not built to cope with such dramatic increase: essential support infrastructure is lacking, and plans to create or improve it are failing to keep pace. This situation is the basis for a raft of social issues – unemployment, poverty, homelessness, healthcare, education, social welfare – a constant source of domestic tension. Another source of social friction is racial discrimination, inescapable in a country with such a mixture of “white” and “black” Moors as well as black Africans and all possible variants. Racial division is a “hot button” and the regime is highly skilled at applying pressure whenever it suits.

Sowing Division, Reaping Chaos

In April 2011, when the new population census and biometric registration programme was launched, there was an outcry over allegations of racial prejudice against citizens of black African heredity.  This year, it was the turn of slavery to grab headlines.  Recent media focus on slavery actually garnered little attention inside the country until a Saudi cleric suggested Muslims could seek atonement by purchasing the freedom of slaves, who he said  were readily-available in Mauritania. This was followed by a comment from the cleric Cheikh Dedew, who is also the patron of the Islamist party, Tewassoul. Dedew made a statement along the lines of “slavery does not exist in Mauritania”. In turn, this provoked Biram Ould Abeid, president of anti-slavery group “IRA” to hold his own Friday prayer meeting on 27 April, and afterwards burn several volumes by Islamic scholars which he said condone slavery through Islam.

Aziz goes Trad

The response was immediate and significant, some might even say orchestrated. Angry protesters marched to the Presidential palace the next day, and president Aziz came out to meet them in full traditional dress instead of the usual couture suit, promising to defend Islam. Biram Ould Abeid and 9 of his associates were arrested that evening. Protests against Biram’s act continued for a time, with demands ranging from an apology to expulsion, and even execution for apostasy. Mauritania does include some precepts of Islamic “Sharia” law, but has not actually executed anyone for many years. Whether knowingly or not, Biram Ould Abeid’s attempt to demonstrate a link between Islam and slavery provided a golden opportunity for Aziz to stifle the slavery debate and restore his flagging reputation by championing the one thing all people in Mauritania have in common: Islam.

As the indignation began to wane, regular Saturday protests by supporters of Biram and his fellow-prisoners began, and were immediately and repeatedly repressed by police with customary violence. Biram’s wife Leyla was attacked several times, and on one occasion shot in the face with a tear gas grenade. On 9 June 2012, a young man – who was not part of the protest, but a shopkeeper on one of the roads where police were clashing with the unarmed protesters – died from tear gas suffocation. As has been the case with previous incidents, officials denied any wrongdoing and claimed the youth died from a pre-existing medical complaint. Biram has in fact published an apology but he and six others, including a journalist, remain in custody.

Now Mauritania appears to be entering a new phase in its ever-evolving struggle. Last week there was a visit from the UN representative for West Africa, fresh from talks with ECOWAS* about the situation in Mali. He met with leaders of the the political opposition coalition for about half an hour before meeting with Aziz. Former transitional leader Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, a cousin of Aziz, provided some distraction by allowing himself to be quoted making outlandish and insulting comments about the 1989 atrocities. This got the abolitionists and anti-racists nicely worked up, while Massoud Ould Belkhair, leader of the more compliant opposition, worked on COD leaders by making overtures about dialogue. For the hat-trick, the failed group which was created last year to call for a national unity government was brought out of cold storage.

Former Chief Justice Ould Ghilani

In the background, the illegal Aziz government pressed on with its agenda. Unqualified diplomats have been dispatched to various international locations. Unqualified candidates have been assigned to a new Electoral Commission, and the former Chief Justice Ould Ghilani was removed from his post and replaced by a very junior and inexperienced jurist. Legislative elections are still not scheduled, but the country’s jurists are forming a union of sorts, just to keep themselves occupied. Next for the arbitrary chop could be the Chief of the Bar Association, Ould Boubehna, who is talking far too much sense these days, echoing constitutional law expert Lo Gormo’s 3 March pronouncement on the government’s  lack of legitimacy.

Eventually, all these issues must be resolved. It is not possible to continue like this indefinitely. The lack of comment or concern over this constitutional imbroglio from international partners, and their willingness to enter into legal agreements, provide aid, and accept and extend invitations to a government which has remained in power through a “coup by default” is at best puzzling and at worst hypocritical.

*Mauritania is not a member of ECOWAS.