In the west African country of Mauritania, a criminal court has dropped terrorism charges against 14 men who had been accused of aiding a group allied to al-Qaida. Phuong Tran has reactions to the court's decision from VOA's West Africa Bureau in Dakar.

In its ruling Tuesday, the criminal court found none of the accused guilty of committing terrorist acts.  But it did find two of the defendants, Tahar Ould Biye and Tiyib Ould Salek, guilty of forgery.

One of the defense lawyers, Limam Mohamed Cheikh, was dismissive of the prosecution's case. 

Cheikh says the court's decision to pursue charges other than treason shows the prosecution did not have a strong case.

The Islamists' lawyers had claimed the prosecution team's evidence was extracted through torture. Cheikh says the team is appealing the convictions and is prepared to argue claims of torture against Mauritanian security forces.

The lawyer says it will be hard to find men willing to submit formal claims, because he says most Mauritanians do not want to cause problems. He says it is still a tribal society where relationships are valued, even between accuser and accused.

Mauritania's National Security Director, Mohamed Abdellahi Taleb Abedi, has denied accusations of torture and says all trial evidence is legally gathered.

The spokesman for the general prosecutor's office in Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott, Moulay Abdellah, says the prosecution team respects the court's decision, but is considering all options.

Abdellah says he cannot yet say whether the team will pursue a more strict punishment, but he says everything is possible and the team is ready to defend its accusations.

The prosecution team had sought the death penalty against two of the 14 defendants and up to 30 years in prison for the others.  They were accused of training with the Salafist Group for Preaching and War, an extremist Algerian organization backed by Osama 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 claimed responsibility for a 2005 attack on a Mauritanian military base that officials say killed 15, and injured about a dozen others.