Mauritanian police arrested top opposition presidential candidate Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah for a second time on Sunday on suspicion of planning a coup following the re-election of longtime leader Maaouiya Ould Taya.
Ould Haidallah (63) a former president who was overthrown by Ould Taya in a 1984 coup, came a distant second to his rival, a former comrade-in-arms, in Friday’s presidential election.
International observers were not invited to witness the vote in Mauritania, where Ould Taya now has a third six-year mandate, having been re-elected in 1997 with 90% amid an opposition boycott.
Among the first to congratulate him was Moroccan King Mohamed VI, who telephoned Ould Taya to wish him “succes in his mission to bring progress and prosperity” to Mauritania, which renounced its claims to Morocco’s disputed Western Sahara region in 1979.
The runner-up and several of his campaign aides had been briefly detained on the eve of the election in the west African desert state, where a coup was violently put down in June.
The 62-year-old Ould Taya received more than 66% of the vote, according to final official results issued by the interior ministry. Ould Haidallah was credited with slightly under 19%, with the four other candidates sharing the remaining 15%.
While Ould Taya’s supporters celebrated in the streets of Nouakchott late on Saturday night, car horns blaring, a large contingent of police surrounded Ould Haidallah’s home and then waited until dawn to arrest him and his campaign director, Ismael Ould Amar.
“There were more than 100 vehicles. You couldn’t come in or leave. We thought they were going to mount an assault, but no, they didn’t budge,” the losing candidate’s deputy campaign director, said Cheikh Ould Horma.
When they came to arrest him, Ould Haidallah “said his prayers, got dressed and followed them without resistance,” the aide said.
The country’s attorney-general on Sunday confirmed the arrests, saying they were part of the ongoing investigation into an alleged coup plot.
The Senegalese human rights organisation African Meeting for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO) called for Ould Haidallah’s immediate release.
“The judicial harassment against Ould Haidallah before and after the election, the arrest of his children and aides have partially comprimised the liberal, democratic and honest character of the election,” the group said in a statement.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch warned in September of a “climate of harassment of opposition members” in Mauritania and voiced fears over the fairness of the upcoming vote.
A generally good-spirited campaign in the six-way race had turned nasty in its final days, with police raiding Ould Haidallah’s home last Monday as well as those of several associates.
They said they had information that certain “extremist groups” were planning to “violently contest” the results of Friday’s polls should the incumbent win.
Two of Ould Haidallah’s sons were arrested during the week, and on Wednesday Ould Taya’s campaign director gave journalists a document allegedly spelling out plans for a coup in the country of 2,8-million.
Ould Haidallah, who had been absent from the political scene in the former French colony for almost 20 years, dismissed the charge as a “machination”, and was arrested Thursday along with six campaign aides — of whom four remain in detention.
He was released a few hours later, and observers pointed out that the vote could not have legally gone forward on Friday with the candidate himself in detention.
Ould Haidallah fled into hiding on Friday and said on his return Saturday that he expected his rearrest.
He and two other opposition candidates, Ahmed Ould Daddah and Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, had jointly issued a “categorical” rejection of what they called “an electoral masquerade”, demanding an immediate rerun.
All of Ould Taya’s opponents said it was high time for a change, pointing to persistent social inequalities, the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a small elite, alleged human rights abuses, cronyism and corruption.
Ould Taya had helped Ould Haidallah to power in 1980, then overthrew him in 1984 in a so-called “palace revolution” that took place while the former colonel was in Burundi for a Franco-African summit.
Venturing home despite his ouster, he was jailed for four years.
The interior ministry put turnout in Friday’s election at 60,8%, down from 75% in 1997. – AFP