A group of Mauritanian exiles living in New York has come forward to accuse the former ruler of their country of “gross violations of human rights.”
They are challenging their country’s justice system even as they charge the former ruler of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania — Maaouya Ould Sidi hmed Taya — with human rights abuses in the years between 1989 and 1991. Former President Taya ruled the country from 1984 to 2005, when a military coup ousted him from power.
Attorneys from the Refugee Defense Alliance, which gives free legal aid to refugees, asylees and political exiles, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court on May 23. The plaintiffs seek a jury trial and unspecified damages for violations of international law. It is unclear whether Taya, who is believed to be in exile in Qatar, has any assets in the United States. The plaintiffs acknowledge that the lawsuit is largely symbolic.
“We are here on behalf of all Mauritanians who are victims of what I call the other apartheid,” plaintiff Abdarahmane Wone said.
Wone was arrested and detained by the Mauritanian National Police in 1989, when he was just 15 years old. He said he was beaten and tortured while in custody. Wone was later released and lived as a refugee in Senegal, where he finished his education. He has lived in the New York area since December 2000.
Mauritania is no stranger to conflict and colonization. France occupied the northwestern African country in the early half of the twentieth century, before Mauritania finally gained its independence in November 1960. Mauritania is bordered by Western Sahara, Senegal and Mali.
According to the U.S. State Department, five ethnic groups make up the population: Arab-Berber (White Moor), Arab-Berber-Negroid (Black Moor), Haalpulaar, Soninke and Wolof (Black African Mauritanians).
Among the mixed population, the worst clashes have been between the Arab Mauritanians of the north and the Black Mauritanians of the south. The Refugee Defense Alliance contends that, “Black Africans in Mauritania have long resisted the policy of Arabization and continued practice of slavery in the country.”
A country study of Mauritania by the Library of Congress concluded: “The greatest challenge to national unity was Mauritania’s heterogeneous population. As in all the Sahelian states, Mauritania’s southern regions were inhabited mainly by peasants who belonged racially and culturally to black Africa, while the population of its northern regions were desert nomads who identified with the Arab world.”
These cultural tensions have cost thousands of Mauritanians their lives.
“Using a 1989 border skirmish with neighboring Senegal as a pretext, the White Mauritanian-controlled government forces embarked on a vicious campaign in turn to remove Black Mauritanians from their homes to establish uncontested domination of Mauritanian land, military and government,” attorney Wesley O’Brien said at a press conference in New York to announce to lawsuit.
“Black Mauritanians in general, and our plaintiffs in particular, have been denied access to justice in the Mauritanian land,” he added.
O’Brien argued that the case can be heard in U.S. federal court by virtue of the Torture Victim’s Statute and Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows U.S. courts to try human rights cases even when neither party has any connection to the United States.
The Mauritanian plaintiffs also include Mansour Mohammed Kane, a former lieutenant of the Mauritanian army in 1990.
“He and the other Black Mauritanian soldiers were abducted by their own superiors in an effort to prevent any black military resistance to ethnic cleansing,” O’Brien said.
Kane was arrested without charge and detained for five months, according to the suit. “During that time, he was subjected day and night to, what [was] in his own words, ‘the science of torture.’ It is purely by chance that he survived,” O’Brien said.
Kane took refuge in the United States upon his release in 1991.
The other plaintiffs did not experience torture or abduction directly, but they hold the Mauritanian army and government accountable for the death of Sergeant Ousmane Wele, the husband of plaintiff Aissata Niang and father of her four children.
“He was abducted by his own superiors, taken to the same camp as plaintiff Kane, and murdered while in detention,” O’Brien said.
All told, the legal documents estimate the number of Black Mauritanians arrested from the military and civil service to be between 1,000 and 3,000.
“The military administration only told the wives of these abducted soldiers that their husbands had been taken on a special mission,” he added. “Only once the surviving soldiers were released did she discover the fate of her husband.”
Wele’s body was never found and no explanation was provided, according to the suit.
When asked by IPS about his expectations for the case, Wone replied, “What I’m expecting is really [for] people to know that whoever is going to be in charge tomorrow, not only in Mauritania, but in Africa in general, that person should know that he or she should lead the country in a certain way.”
“What we are doing here is just teaching people how to act right, how to respect human dignity, how to respect human rights,” he said.
“While simply entering the halls of justice could be considered a victory for my clients, we have no misconceptions about the difficulties to bring this type of action. This case is but one attempt for justice in a much larger struggle taking place,” O’Brien said.
The attorney said he had come across the case after being inspired by an article in Columbia University’s newspaper on the struggles faced by a Mauritanian “freedom fighter,” Abdarahmane Wone. Soon after reading the article, the attorney and Wone met.
“Abda being the very determined man again was hammering his fists on the table saying, ‘I want to sue the president, I want to sue the president!’ And I said Abda, you can’t just sue the former president of Mauritania! It’s more complicated than that,” O’Brien said.
“Here we are a year later and we’re suing the former president of Mauritania,” he said. “We are on our way.”
The accused former president has 90 days to answer the complaint.