MAURITANIA: Controversial opinion writer jailed for writing about presidential candidate

Considered one of the most vocal critics of the Mauritanian regime, dissident writer Hanevy Ould Dahah was jailed last week and charged with defaming Mauritanian presidential candidate Sar Ibrahima Mokhtar. MENASSAT's Mohammad Salem looks at the controversial arrest and what is being done to free Ould Dahah.
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Hanevy Ould Dahah, known for criticizing political officials and military rulers in Mauritania.

NOUAKCHOTT, June 25, 2009 (MENASSAT) — The manager of an online Mauritanian newspaper Taqadoumy, has been in prison for 8 days, facing accusations of defamation for articles he had written against presidential candidate Sar Ibrahima Mokhtar.

Hanevy Ould Dahah is a dissident writer known for his public criticism of Mauritanian political officials and army leaders, and prior to the August 2008 military coup d'etat, had been one of the main critics of the deposed President Ould al-Sheikh Abdullah.

Now at the mercy of Mauritania's military junta, the former president has ironically become one of Ould Dahah's biggest supporters.

Journalist stands by his writing

According to sources who witnessed Ould Dahah's arrest, on June 18 a plainclothes police officer took the writer to the outskirts of the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott after the officer convinced him we was a faithful supporter of his public views.

The officer told the journalist that he wanted to publish on Taqadoumy's website important government information he claimed to have access to.

Ould Dahah had become familiar with fielding information from government insiders, and according to the Mauritanian Journalists’ Union (SJM), Taqadoumy had gained a reputation for exposing government secrets.

The story turned out to be a security entrapment scheme, and Ould Dahah was handcuffed and taken to a nearby police station.
Opposition presidential candidate Sar Ibrahima brought charges against the writer for "distorting his reputation just before the presidential elections, when every candidate should run with a clean slate.”

Ould Dahah's article in question alleged that Sar Ibrahima bought a fancy house in the wetland area of Tafragh Zeins in southern Mauritania for 30 million ouguiya ($116,168) with money given to him by the Mauritian military.

According to story, the money was given to him to bolster his election campaign and to grant some legitimacy to the electoral process ahead of the July 18 election.

Opposition parties have decided to boycott the election.

Sar Ibrahima’s office issued a statement threatening to file a lawsuit against the newspaper, and also sent a complaint to the General Prosecutor in Mauritania.

However, Taqadoumy insisted that Sar Ibrahima’s complaint was invalid. Ould Dahah wrote a letter to the candidate, stating

“Sar Ibrahima Mokhtar knows more than anyone else that if we wanted to defame him, we would have published details of what happened between him and a police officer in Nouakchott airport, when he was asked that his luggage be searched on his way to Paris. Wouldn’t publishing this story, which we had the details of illegal goings on, harm you more than buying a villa when you’re preparing yourself for the elections?”

The letter continued, “I say to Sar Ibrahima Mokhtar that we are fully ready to face the lawsuit he intends to raise against our newspaper, and we will not be late in paying the price of freedom of expression. Being the publishing manager of the newspaper, I hold all the legal and moral responsibility to what is published in its (Taqadoumy’s) three versions, excluding the comments and forums.”

Not afraid of accusations

Ould Dahah wrote the letter while in the US.

Four days after his return to Nouakchott, he was arrested and is still awaiting his trial.

Media rights-groups and political parties in Mauritania have denounced Ould Dahah's detainment.

The Muslim National Gathering for Reform and Development called for the immediate release of Ould Dahah, demanding that authorities respect media worker rights.

The opposition Hawa’ party also denounced the arrest, and Arab thinker Haitham Mannaa called on the government to release Ould Dahah.

Mauritanian activist Badi Ould Ibno condemned the arrest, calling it “a clear abuse of the basic freedoms and human rights.”

And Ould Dahah supporters have created a blog to support the journalist, featuring a number of articles that denounced the arrest.

While Ould Dahah’s fate remains in the hands of the judicial system, the journalist has said he is adamant about the article's veracity and would change nothing if asked to rescind what was published.