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French Court Finds Mauritanian Guilty of Torture

A French court has found a Mauritanian military officer guilty of torture in his own country, applying for the first time a doctrine allowing foreigners to be prosecuted for crimes committed anywhere in the world.

The court in the southern town of Nimes Ely Ould Dah sentenced in abstentia Ely Ould Dah to 10 years in prison. The trial marks the first time a French court has applied the so-called doctrine of universal jurisdiction, which allows prosecution of foreigners for crimes committed outside French territory.

In a telephone interview minutes after the verdict was announced, human rights activist Jean Sunzer told VOA the conviction sends a strong signal to others implicated in human rights violations overseas.

Ms. Sunzer, who heads the international justice program for the International Federation of Human Rights in Paris, described the verdict as a huge victory for victims of torture in Mauritania, and not just those whom Dah is accused of torturing. Ms. Sunzer's federation is among several human rights groups that filed charges against the Mauritanian army officer.

Dah was accused of torture and acts of barbarism committed in 1991 against two black officers, who were blamed in a plot against Mauritania's president. Human rights groups say the officers were among hundreds who were arrested, tortured and assassinated at the time.

A French court ordered Dah's arrest in 1999, when he was enrolled in a military school in the southern French city of Montpellier. But when he was granted parole a year later, he fled the country.

In recent years, there have been a number of high-profile efforts to apply the doctrine, of universal jurisdiction, starting with the 1998 detention of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet in London.

In 2001, two Rwandan nuns were convicted by a Belgian court for taking part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, under a Belgian law allowing the country to try war crimes committed anywhere in the world. But in 2003, Belgium amended its war crimes law, making it more difficult to file such charges.

Now, human rights groups like the International Federation hope the Dah trial will set a precedent in France. The French government said this week it would consider prosecuting a former United Nations employee implicated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Ms. Sunzer said Friday's verdict may also embolden French prosecutors to pursue those implicated in other human rights violations beyond France's borders.