Fighting terror, the Mauritanian way

The government of ex-general Ould Abdel Aziz, who seized power in Mauritania in 2008 and then won a questionable election last July, has come up with a new law against terrorism.

Ould Abdel Aziz is generally given an easy ride internationally – easier than he deserves – because, as the Associated Press likes to point out, Mauritania is seen as a "bulwark" against al-Qaeda.

But the newly-approved anti-terror law (text here, in Arabic) is causing some concern. Opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah has denounced it as containing "articles contradictory to the sharia, to morality, and to Islamic values as well as democratic principles and liberty".

The law does include some potentially useful provisions but it flounders on the question of defining terrorism – particularly in its broadness and its vagueness.

Article 3, for example, treats “threatening the internal or external security of the state” as an act of terrorism – which Kal, in a critique of the law on the Moor Next Door blog, describes as "a classical approach to despotic authoritarianism". Article 3 also specifies "cyber" crime as terrorism, without any elaboration. 

Similarly, it is terrorism to interfere with the "safety" of air, sea or land transport. Could this apply to a kid throwing a stone at a riot vehicle, or a driver bumping into a police car? There's nothing in the law to suggest it couldn't.

In many ways this is reminiscent of the Egyptian attempts to draftan anti-terrorism law. Noting that the Egyptian draft "appears to include in the definition of terrorism acts that do not entail physical violence against human beings", a UN special rapporteur warned: "Any anti-terrorism law that is not properly confined to the countering of terrorism is problematic."

The danger with loosely-drafted laws of this kind is that they can easily discredit genuine efforts to combat terrorism. Critics of the Mauritanian law, Kal writes, are not "appeasers", but they know "that the government’s talk about fighting terrorism is a way of consolidating power and using the parliament to give a glossy sheen to an incompetent leader unserious about terrorism, or much else apart from sitting in office".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 January 2010.