#Mauritania: Sex, Lies and Videotape

February 25 Movement
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Let’s break with tradition and do the sex part first. Yes, it has been suggested that there is a sex angle to the accidental shooting story of president Aziz in Mauritania! This is a quandary, as everyone is adamant that they do want the truth, but at the same time, no one wants it to be some sordid and sleazy tale of the president having an illicit relationship that went horribly wrong, and got him shot or injured or whatever. And yet, in the absence of any reasonable, logical and reliable alternative explanation, more people are gravitating towards this very unofficial yet somehow more credible version of events. I have to say right here: I have no way of knowing if the president was even attacked, let alone shot. All I know for certain is that something happened to him, and I have nothing to rely on apart from outright lies and half-truths peddled by the corrupt regime, or the meandering fantasies of observers (myself included!) whether inside or outside Mauritania.

In trying to keep an open mind I have to allow for two possibilities: that what happened to Aziz might have been staged, or might have been an accident. For me, only his prompt return will confirm the latter. Despite my efforts, I find myself increasingly convinced France and Mauritania are playing a dirty game, one designed to promote the prospect of a military misadventure in Mali. I could not for one moment believe that they are the only countries involved in such a farce.

Aziz’ post-surgery TV appearance last week reveals a gauze dressing on the left side of his lower neck

We have the president of Mauritania holed up in the Percy military hospital in Paris for additional care of an unspecified nature, despite being told his injuries in the October 13th incident were minor, and that the surgery performed in Nouakchott military hospital was a success. Close inspection of the footage of president Aziz’ post-surgery TV appearance last week reveals a gauze dressing on the left side of his lower neck, despite having the sheets pulled up to conceal it. Whatever happened in that area, it is unlikely to be related to the bullet which reportedly damaged in his colon and required a delicate 4-hour surgery.

Visible scarring on Aziz’ neck

Four days after the incident, when the French Minister of Defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian, paid a “social call” on Aziz, there was a small patch of scarred skin visible on Aziz’ neck, just visible above his over-sized pyjamas. It is difficult to tell what; it could just as easily be  a bullet wound or a burn. This is the time to note that the Percy hospital specialises in the treatment of burn injuries. The photos of Aziz and Le Drian were posted on the official ami.mr news site [ar] in Mauritania later on Wednesday, but not on the French Ministry of Defence website. The visit was largely ignored by the French and international media, despite Le Drian having just been widely quoted the day before  promising military action in Mali in “weeks, not months“. There was no press release, and the visit was not mentioned in the minister’s official engagements diary. A request for comment from the Ministry’s press office had not received a response at the time of writing this post.

Then there is the mystery of Ba Mamadou dit Mbaré, the only constitutionally legal replacement in case of the Mauritanian president’s incapacity, as President of the Senate. It was only discovered after Aziz left for Paris that Mr dit Mbaré was already on sick leave there himself. No mention had been made of this in any official media, and he was being reported on as normal, attending to his duties, until a few weeks ago. There has been no statement even now the news is out, and no comment on the nature or likely duration of his medical condition. This is being played as a non-issue, with officials asserting that Aziz is well enough to perform his duties while undergoing treatment. And so, for a week now, the country has been governed by an absent president, sundry unelected government representatives, and his Chief of Defence. The regular Thursday cabinet meeting was cancelled – this is important: because Aziz is the only validly elected official in the entire government, he has to sign off on everything, and every cabinet meeting has to be an “emergency meeting” convened by the president.

Now we are told that the French embassy is denying the President of the National Assembly, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a travel visa to Paris. But this is not quite accurate. What is really happening is Ould Boulkheir allegedly objecting to being asked to attend the consular office to give his fingerprints in order to create his visa. Ould Boulkheir holds one of three posts named in the constitution as having the power to declare Aziz unfit to serve, and through this manufactured stalemate, he is effectively prevented from going to Paris to assess the president’s true condition and raising the alarm if required. The other two are the Prime Minister (Laghdaf, a lapdog) and the head of the Supreme Court (the incumbent was recently replaced before the end of his official tenure by Aziz).

While this play unfolds, the external PR and media offensive is being ramped up: trying to tie the “shooting” to terrorists; claiming Mauritania is “seriously concerned” about the terrorist threat; re-hashing of any old news story mentioning AQIM and Mauritania. Over to the East, it would seem we are witnessing a replay of events, uncannily similar to those which preceded the NATO force’s arrival in Libya last year, in which someone busted jihadist contractors out of prison presumably to boost the rebel forces in northern Mali and for all we know, financed by a bank robbery in Yemen. This contrasts with almost total silence about conciliatory gestures being made through negotiations between various groups, and last weekend’s regional Tuareg conference in Lere, Nigeria. We should be on the lookout for increased reports of hostile actions: violence, beatings, rapes, robberies, etc, followed by more in-fighting and divisions. We should also pay attention to a developing story [fr] from Mali, of northerners who originally fled returning home despite the imposition of Sharia by the Islamists, and finding free though erratic power and water supplies, reduced food prices, and paid work. Poverty and misery in the south is said to be providing the impetus for the reversal. Word of this will spread to the refugee camps and, as winter sets in, repatriation could become an increasing trend. No wonder one of the NLP-type catchphrases in the media for the Sahel is “a race against time”. [See here, here, here and here]

The mistaken marksman of Mauritania, Elhaj Ould Hamoudi

Internally, the website Sahel Media was mysteriously unavailable to users in Mauritania of the Mauritel phone service (51% owned by CMC Morocco Telecom) for almost an entire day. Access was lost almost immediately after Sahel Media published a story [ar] about French Islamists* breaching the Western Sahara barrier built by Morocco, near the border with Mauritania, through which is being smuggled cocaine from Colombia. Sites carrying articles quoting AQIM supposedly threatening France remained freely accessible.

Sunday night, Mauritanian national TV produced the poor sap who has been named and shamed as “the shooter” – a rookie lieutenant from Kiffa whom we are told “is normally based in the north”. He was shown on TV [vid, ar] at prime time, to reinforce the official story about mistakenly firing on Aziz as  the president sped past him, in an unmarked car, at top speed. Even after a whole week to prepare and rehearse, there were inaccuracies in the retelling between this on-air confession, and the original official statement [NYT En], and even the words of the president himself [CSM En].

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera managed to do a 2-part interview [vid, ar] with Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, aka Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, the former Al-Qaeda number 3. The interview took place inside Mauritania, where one might expect he would be under strict orders not to talk to the media about his former role with Al Qaeda, as a condition of his recent release from custody. This would appear not to be the case, but even if there are objections, Aziz has his “I was in Paris” alibi. I am actually hoping that both the US government and the jihadists in Mali take notice of Abu Hafs, because he talks a lot of sense.

As for the Mauritanian political opposition, they collapsed like a gurney before the bullet hit the kidney-dish, and declared they would suspend all planned protests out of respect for their opponent’s debilitated state. At this point, please note that every previously elected member of government – ruling party as well as opposition – has collected a year’s salary gratis out of the state coffers, while the poverty-stricken population waits to hear yet another excuse for why there is still no date for either of the postponed elections. The opposition did not stand idle however: they called for an investigation and convened a standing committee to try and determine the true events of  October 13, and have called a press conference for Monday 22 October. One of them, Mohammed Ould Moloud, kept busy with a series of meeting with officials from various EU countries.

February 25 Movement – nothing left in Mauritania but questions

The only breath of fresh air in this whole stinking scenario once again comes from the activist movement of 25 February [ar], who formed a human chain along the main street of Nouakchott last Thursday, each one of them silently holding up a poster which totally captures the mood of the country at this time: a large, solitary “?”.

Some of the members of “m25fev”, as they are known, will be interviewed on Chinguetti TV tonight or tomorrow, if all goes to plan.  The best part of the silent protest was that the police didn’t attack or arrest the demonstrators. The next day the police rediscovered their calling, and attacked and arrested the peaceful pro-morality protesters. People have to remind themselves every time this happens (and it happens too often) that Mauritania is an Islamic Republic.

*For more on France as a breeding ground for Islamists, see Marc Sageman’s 2004 article “Understanding Terror Networks”. Or Google.

Gulf states sideline Arab League in Syria talks

Leaders of the Gulf Arab States pose for a photo before the opening session of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh May 10, 2011. (Ho New/Courtesy Reuters)
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The meeting of Arab foreign ministers scheduled to be held in the Saudi city of Jeddah over the Syrian crisis has been postponed indefinitely without explanation by the Arab League. This “emergency meeting” was to discuss the conflict and the replacement of the UN and international mediator Kofi Annan, who resigned last week after the failure of his peace efforts. The Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi was tipped to succeed him .

However, the foreign ministers of the six Gulf monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain) held last night in Jeddah a meeting about the Syrian crisis. Now, this session is expected to take place Tuesday during an Islamic summit in the kingdom following the initiative of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who seeks to mobilize the Muslim world in favor of the uprising in Syria.

Syria, a member of the OIC, “will not be represented at this summit,” according to Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the Organization Islamic Cooperation (OIC), adding that a preparatory meeting of Foreign Ministers would be held Monday and should “decide on a suspension of Syria, recommended by representatives of member countries. ” The organization of this summit, which promises very sharp clashes between Iran, unwavering supporter of Syria, and the GCC, including Saudi Arabia, comes as the UN could not take a firm stand on this issue after the differences arising among members of the Security Council.

It would seem that those parties who declined Iran’s invitation to last Thursday’s “Friends of Syria” summit in Tehran have been forced by that event to step up their own efforts.

Leaders of the Gulf Arab States pose for a photo before the opening session of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh May 10, 2011. (Ho New/Courtesy Reuters)

Four days after launching its ground offensive to cleanse the rebels from Aleppo, tanks and warplanes of the regime of Bashar al-Assad continue to pound several districts of this metropolis in the North of the country. According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR), the neighborhoods Shaar, Tariq al-Bab, Hanano, Bustan al-Qasr and Salaheddin are the target of violent firing of artillery by the army.

Shots were also heard in Damascus while the nearby towns of Al-Tal and Harsata were bombed, according to the SOHR.

In Homs, soldiers assisted by militiamen “executed” ten young people in the Shams neighborhood, according to the Syrian National Council, the main opposition coalition. The victims were selected from a crowd of 350 people gathered in one place, said SNC.

Clashes took place elsewhere in the province of Deraa (south), birthplace of the insurgency launched in March 2011 against the Assad regime.

In Beirut, a judicial source said that the Syrian security chief, General Ali Mamluk, is suspected of plotting attacks in Lebanon. Last week, the former Lebanese minister Michel Samaha was arrested . Samaha is a pro-Syrian figure.

Some content via Al Bawaba http://snup.us/Iij

News from Iran – Week 30 – 2012

Narges Mohammadi
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News of the Prisoners

A- Transfers

Narges Mohammadi

  • On day 56 of hunger strike Human Rights activist Mohammad Sedigh Kaboudvand was admitted to hospital for 2 hours then returned to Evin.
  • Narges Mohammadi is back in prison.
  • Vahid Rastgoo transferred to methadone ward in Tabriz prison.

 

B- Arrests/Incarcerations

  • Mitra Aali was transferred to Evin 350 to start serving her 1 year prison term.
  • Ashkan Alhayari begins serving his 1 year sentence in Evin.
  • Goudarz Beidaghi Baha’i from Semnan begins serving his 1 year sentence
  • Human Rights activist, Dr Ehsam Firouzi started his 18 Month prison sentence in Evin.
  • Habib Halefi, political Arab activist, arrested at home.
  • Abtin Jahanian, begins serving his 3 year sentence in Evin.
  • Adibeh Kalantari, Kurdish student, arrested.
  • Ali Mola Haji, student in Ghazvine University, begins serving his 3 year sentence in Evin.
  • Shamim Naeemi, Baha’i, arrested after summon in Tehran.
  • Mansour Naghipour, human rights activist, begins serving his 7 year sentence in Evin.
  • Zohreh Nikaeen, mother of a five month-old baby, begins serving her 23 month sentence.
  • Baha’i Aziz Samandari jailed in Iran for 5 years.
  • Ahmad Shariat the regime supporter blogger arrested.
  • Taraneh Torabi, mother of a one month baby, summoned to serve her 23 month sentence .
  • Nahid Zahraei, Baha’i, arrested at home in Tehran.

 

C-Liberations

  • Hasan Asadi-Zeidabadi, Advar member, released on bail on furlough.
  • Mojtaba Karimi, Esfahan University student activist, released on bail.
  • Ali Malihi, Advar member, released on bail on furlough.
  • Civil activist Hashem Mirzaei has been released on bail from Tabriz prison.
  • Erfan Mohammadi, Esfahan University student activist, released on bail.
  • Farahnaz Naeemi, Baha’i, released on bail.
  • Bakhtiar and Farin Rasekhi, Baha’is, released on bail.
  • Amin Zargarnezhad freed on bail.

 

D-Other News

  • Syrian-born Kurdish political prisoner Ramezan Ahmad Kamal serving 10-year sentence, on hunger strike.
  • Kurdish journalist/Human Rights activist Mohammad Sedigh Kaboudvand has ended his hunger strike.

 

News of injustice in Iran

  • Naser Behjati sentenced to 1.5 years in prison in Mahabad.
  • Ali Borna sentenced to 3 years in prison in Mahabad.
  • Soleiman Cheragh-Manan sentenced to 4 years in prison in Mahabad.
  • Mohammad Ebrahimzadeh sentenced to 1 year in prison in Mahabad.
  • Baha’i Ehsan Erfani has been sentenced to 1 year in prison by the Revolutionary Court in Semnan.
  • Akbar Gavili, Kurdish environmentalist, sentenced to 2 years in Sanandaj.
  • Osman Ghadernezhad sentenced to 4 years in prison in Mahabad.
  • Mohammad-Amin Ghaderzadehsentenced to 5 years in prison in Mahabad.
  • Zanyar Ghaderzadeh sentenced to 3 years in prison in Mahabad.
  • Esmail Hamzehpour sentenced to 5 years in prison in Mahabad.
  • Morad Hasanzadeh sentenced to 1 year in prison in Mahabad.
  • Political/civil activist Roozbeh Khanpayeh has been sentenced to 4,5 years in prison + 8 months suspended sentence.
  • Gholamreza Khosravi Savadjani to be executed August 11.
  • Veria Khosravi, Kurdish environmentalist, sentenced to 4 years in Sanandaj.
  • Former MP and Participation Front member Rajabali Mazrouie has been sentenced to 18 months in prison + 5 year ban on journalism.
  • Ali and Chia Molanezhad sentenced to 5 years in prison each in Mahabad.
  • Osman Molanezhad sentenced to 10 years in prison in Mahabad.
  • Samkoo Osmani sentenced to 18 months in prison in Mahabad.
  • Human Rights activist Dr.Yousef Pourseifi sentenced to 5 years and 6 months in prison.
  • Ghasem Rahimi sentenced to 1 year in prison in Mahabad.
  • Kamran Rahimi, Kurdish environmentalist, sentenced to 3 years in Sanandaj.
  • Soleiman Rahimzadeh, and brothers Kaveh and Loghman Saleki sentenced to 4 years in prison in Mahabad.
  • Davoud Shiri, environmentalist, sentenced to 4 months in Tabriz.
  • Naser Tarighi sentenced to 5 years in prison in Mahabad.
  • Anwar and Mohammad Yazid-Doost sentenced to 2 years in prison each in Mahabad.
  • 22 years old man convicted of cutting off a finger of another man during a fight is sentenced to hand amputation as retribution.
  • Siyasat Rooz magazine was exonerated of charges of publishing lies.
  • 17 years old receives the death penalty for committing murder when 15.
  • A man was hanged in Ilam on Tuesday.

 

University – Culture

  • Police continue with raiding the homes and collecting satellite dishes, this time in Bukan.
  • Ershad Ministry has banned billboards for foreign travel, except for pilgrimage.
  • Parviz Piran, prominent professor of Sociology expelled from Allameh Tabatabaie University.

 

Protests

  • First protest during 2012 against economic conditions in Nishapur, north-eastern Iran.

 

Economy in Iran

  • Iran introduces 3-tiered foreign exchange rate: USD at 1226, 1500, and 1910 tomans.
  • Iran to import 20,000 tons of frozen chicken from Brazil.
  • Food prices in Iran up 37% since last year’s Ramadan.
  • Workers owed 4 month wages at Ziviea Dam project.
  • Iran to import wheat from Pakistan in exchange for chemical fertilizers
  • Iran Khodro says it can live without PSA.
  • Ahvaz Pipe Factory workers have not been paid for 20 months.
  • Iran stops selling subsidized foreign currency to Iranians traveling abroad.

 

Iranabroad

  • New diplomatic crisis: Yemen officials have threatened to expel all Iran embassy diplomats.
  • India bars 3 Iranian banks on security fears.
  • Iran denies news reports of death in Damascus, Syria, of IRGC’s Ghassem Soleimani, a commander of the Ghods Force.
  • Inaugural Elizabeth Taylor Award given to Arash and Kamran Alaei for their work on HIV/AIDS in Iran.
  • Iran builds 1st tanker for Venezuela.
  • Ali Saeedlou, vice president for foreign affairs, received Syria‘s deputy prime minister in Tehran, and called for expansion of trade between the two countries.
  • Student bassiji protest against Bahrain presence in non-aligned meeting to be held in Tehran.

 

Politics in Iran

  • Iran began leasing agricultural land to Qatar as of 8 months ago.
  • Mojtaba Vahedi breaks ties to Karroubi, so he can pursue overthrow of regime.
  • Brother of Quds Force commander Ghassem Soleimani, Sohrab Soleimani – Director General of Tehran Province prisons – dismissed on charges of embezzlement and corruption and arrested; he was stealing prisoners’ and guards’ food rations.
  • Illegal residents being processed by the thousands: official.
  • Iran province of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad bans transport of chicken across state lines.

 

Miscellaneous

  • 65% of Lake Urmia has dried up.
  • Iran nuclear energy facility hit with malware that plays AC/DC at full volume.
  • 143 traditional tea and coffee houses closed in Karaj.

 

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.

#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.