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Questions Surround Terror Trial in Mauritania

In the west African country of Mauritania, defense lawyers are presenting final arguments on behalf of 14 suspects accused of fighting alongside a radical Islamic group. The lawyers say police tortured their clients to extract confessions. But Mauritania's top officials say they have convincing evidence of the defendants' terrorist activities. Phuong Tran was in the courtroom last week and filed this report for VOA.

At the courtroom's entrance, men and women enter separate doors. Both are checked for weapons.

Many are family members of the 14 men accused of training with the Salifist Group for Preaching and War, an extremist Algerian organisation backed by bin Laden and widely regarded as one of the most active and brutal. It is now called the Organization of al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb.

The group claims it is responsible for a 2005 attack in northern Mauritania that officials say killed 15. Shortly after the attack, the group criticized Mauritania's diplomatic ties with Israel and its participation in U.S.-led anti-terrorist trainings.

Mariem Mint Biye is the sister of one of the accused. She says her brother, Taher Ould Biye, has never participated in any Islamic group and she does not know why he is charged with terror.

Outside the courtroom, Ahmed Cheikh Sidiye, head of the National Association of Mauritanian Lawyers, says police used torture to extract confessions.

Sidiye says the accused were brought before the prosecution under inhumane conditions. He syas their hands, legs, and feet were chained. The lawyer says the men could not walk on their own and police had to escort them up the stairs.

The director of Mauritania's National Security Service, Mohamed Abdellahi Taleb Abedi is head of police and secret services. He denies any use of torture.

"To my knowledge, there has never been an instance of torture by our security forces. Our interrogations are governed by national laws," he says. "These allegations [of torture] happen all over the world. When people are accused of committing a crime, they try to invoke torture to get out of punishment."

Abedi says the terrorist threat the accused pose is real.

The security director says Mauritania's unpopulated deserts and porous borders have made the country an easy target for armed groups trying to increase regional power, or to sell drugs and weapons.

But political analyst Alex Vines with the London-based Chatham House says previous Mauritanian governments have used the international war against terror to silence political opponents.

"Whether these individuals are a threat to international peace and security, rather than involved in a local grievance within Mauritania and the politics of Mauritania itself, is the question," he said.

Vines says poor African countries also often exaggerate the risk to get much-needed financial and military help from the United States.

In 2005, the United States expanded its West African counter-terrorism program that started with $6 million, to the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative, which has a $100 million annual budget until 2010.

Mauritania's newly-elected president, Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, says he will participate in anti-terrorist trainings, depending on how the threat develops. He says it is Mauritania's obligation to do everything possible to protect itself and prevent terrorist acts.

Nouakchott's criminal court is expected to announce its ruling later this week.

This is the second Mauritanian terrorism-related trial in recent months. The previous trial ruled none of the more than 20 accused committed terrorist acts.