Mauritania: “Safeguards against torture must be made to work” – UN Rights expert urges

By Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

(Issued as received) — United Nations human rights expert Juan E. Méndez today called on the Mauritanian authorities “to put into practice the existing laws and safeguards for the protection from torture and ill-treatment for all suspects and detainees in Mauritania.”

“The legal safeguards against torture and ill-treatment are in place, but they don't work,” warned the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment said at the end of his first official visit to the country. Mr. Méndez welcomed the latest legislative developments in the fight against torture, including the new torture law and the law establishing the National Preventive Mechanism. “However,” he stressed, “the judicial operators in Mauritania must understand that a problem exists in this domain, and must step up their efforts to use and implement those safeguards.” “I am in particular concerned about the almost total absence of investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment today,” the UN independent expert said. “There seems to be little interest from prosecutors and courts in pursuing allegations of torture. The complete lack of forensic medical expertise is a factor in the legal system's inability to investigate such allegations adequately. It also has the effect of making it almost impossible to apply the rule of exclusion of statements obtained under coercion,” he noted. During his ten-day visit to Mauritania, the expert carried out unannounced visits to places of detention such as police and gendarmerie stations, prisons, juvenile detention centers, as well as mental health institutions and places where irregular immigrants are held, including a very rarely visited high security detention facility in the Salahdine military base. His visit covered both the capital as well as several regions in the interior of the country. “In interviews with detainees, several described some forms of coercion by police and gendarmerie at arrest and interrogation that amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under international law, such as beatings, threats, demeaning verbal abuse and slaps” Mr. Mendez stated, while acknowledging that others said they had not been mistreated. “In some testimonies that I received and consider reliable the severity of the pain and suffering endured did constitute torture, such as in prolonged solitary confinement, or stress positions or severe beatings lasting several days.” In that respect, he noted that “while not rampant, ill-treatment occurs frequently enough -in particular for more serious crimes- that it merits to be taken seriously by the Government. Each allegation should be investigated immediately and thoroughly and the necessary conclusions drawn.” The Special Rapporteur also drew attention to the use of safe houses (unofficial detention facilities), acknowledged by the Mauritanian authorities during the visit. “The use of such facilities and the absence of access to a lawyer for up to 45 days for suspects charged with terrorism creates an environment for torture and ill-treatment,” he warned. He urged the Government to review both of those policies and bring detention practice within the standards of international law. “The living conditions for the inmates are inhumane,” the expert said. “Facilities are overcrowded, inadequate - as they are rarely purposely built -, unsanitary and insufficiently ventilated. There is effectively no access to health care and dental and psychiatric support is totally absent. Inmates lack work and education opportunities, as well as exercise and sunshine.” The UN Special Rapporteur furthermore voiced his concern that prison staff lacks appropriate training in the management and security of penitentiary facilities. He also urged Mauritania to address remedies for the human rights violations and forced deportations that occurred in the period of the so-called “passif humanitaire” between 1989 and 1992 including prosecution for international crimes, particularly torture. “Impunity for crimes of the past only breeds impunity for the instances of abuse in the present,” he said. During his official visit to Mauritania, Mr. Méndez held consultations with high-ranking officials, relevant government institutions, civil society organisations and victims' associations. “Throughout, the access provided by the authorities was complete and without hindrance; the Government deserves recognition for living up to its commitment to respect the integrity and independence of the mission,” he noted. The Special Rapporteur will present a final report to the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly in the course of the year.