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Mauritanian Acquittals Seen as Sign of Judicial Independence

Defendants and human rights activists in Mauritania are celebrating the acquittal Tuesday of more than 20 suspected Islamic radicals, calling it a sign of judiciary independence. They also say the threat of terrorism in Mauritania has been exaggerated. Selah Hennessy reports from the VOA West Africa bureau in Dakar.

The court's president, Ould Moulaye Ahmed, said there was insufficient evidence to convict the men, who were accused of having links with a terrorist organization. The defendants' lawyers denied the charges and argued admissions presented into evidence were obtained under torture.

Only one man, who is at large, was convicted and sentenced to two years for forging identity papers.

Wolfram Lacher, a London-based analyst with the group Control Risks, says the trial shows the judiciary in Mauritania is displaying credibility.

"It is a demonstrative return to the rule of law after years of arbitrary rule, after years of arrest without access to lawyers," he noted. "The people who were in prison since 2005 in many cases did not even know the charges they faced."

He says the acquittals prove terrorism is not a serious threat in Mauritania. He says the danger of terrorism was deliberately exaggerated by the government of former president Maaouya Ould Taya, who was deposed in a military coup in 2005.

"The judges lent authoritative support to the view taken by many independent observers in and outside of Mauritania that there is little hard evidence for the existence of a terrorist threat in Mauritania," he added.

Salem Bokari, a Mauritanian journalist, says the new government is trying to avoid mistakes made by Mr. Taya's government.

"The new government does not like to have a permanent confrontation with Islamist groups," he explained.

He says the people see the acquittal as a promising sign of democracy.

"Clearly people in the street and all of them find that the Mauritanian justice is really free, because no pressure was put on the court during this first trial in the new democratic era," he added. "This is the first test and all the people and observers and government find that this first test was successful for the new justice of Mauritania."

But Richard Reeve, an analyst with London-based study group Chatham House, says the speed of the trial suggests that it may have been affected by political influences.

"It was a trial that was very swiftly concluded, you might be able to argue from the contrary perspective that with pressure elsewhere in the system, from Islamist parties or those who want to sever relations with Israel, that this was an expedient way of the government to appear to be more independent than perhaps it is," he noted.

Mauritania's transitional military government held a series of elections, leading up to a presidential poll last March. Mauritania's military has been getting U.S. assistance to fight radical groups, some of which operate in large bands in the Sahel and Sahara desert.