Former Mauritanian president Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah has been released from prison after receiving a suspended prison sentence for plotting to overthrow the current head of state, Maaouiya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya.
The five-year suspended sentence, handed down by a criminal court in Nouakchott on Sunday night, leaves Ould Haidalla a free man. But it effectively bars him from mounting a fresh challenge to Ould Taya through the ballot box.
Ould Haidalla led a military government in this Islamic desert state of 2,5-million people from 1980 to 1984, when he was overthrown by Ould Taya in a coup.
The 63-year-old former army colonel tried to make a comeback by challenging Ould Taya in Mauritania’s November 7 presidential election.
But he and 14 of his followers were arrested and charged with treason the day after Ould Taya was officially declared the winner.
Lawyer Brahim Ould Ebety, who was part of the 53-member defence team, said on Monday that the sentence had automatically stripped Ould Haidalla of his civic rights.
For the next five years, Ebety said, the former president would be barred from voting, holding public meetings and taking part in the political process.
Opposition leaders have accused Ould Taya, who has ruled Mauritania with an iron hand for nearly 20 years, of rigging the elections and staging a political trial to remove Ould Haidalla from the scene.
“The justice system has been manipulated in order to eliminate a dangerous political opponent,” Ebety said. He noted that Ould Haidalla would be banned from political activity for most of Ould Taya’s new six-year term.
“I am happy that they spent the night at home, but I was concerned about the manipulation of the justice system by the executive branch,” the lawyer said.
After years of silence, Ould Haidalla re-emerged in August to challenge through the ballot box the man who overthrew him by force of arms. He quickly became the leading opposition voice in this poor West African country.
However, the official election results portrayed him as a distant runner-up to Ould Taya. The incumbent head of state was credited with more than 66% of the vote. Ould Haidalla was said to have won less than 19%.
The opposition leader and his 14 followers were arrested on November 9 and were held in custody throughout the month-long trial. They faced several charges of plotting to overthrow the government and colluding with a foreign power and could have received a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The government detained Ould Haidalla and a group of his supporters for several hours the day before the election. They were released without being formally charged, only to be re-arrested two days after the vote.
The government subsequently accused Ould Haidalla of receiving a $1-million contribution towards his election campaign from Libya, which has been fiercely critical of Ould Taya’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Tripoli denied the charge.
During the month-long trial, the judge repeatedly suspended proceedings in view of the prosecution’s failure to produce key witnesses.
Haidalla and four other co-accused, including his son Sidi Mohamed and his campaign spokesperson, Ely Ould Sneiba, were given five-year suspended prison sentences and fines of $1 600 each.
Four others received two-year suspended sentences and $800 fines. The remaining six defendants were acquitted of all charges.
Ebety said the defence team planned to lodge an appeal against the convictions, but added that he was not hopeful of getting the verdict overturned.
A foreign journalist in Nouakchott who followed the trial closely said that sentencing of Ould Haidalla would not diminish a growing wave of anti-Taya sentiment in Mauritania.
Leading opposition figures, human rights activists and other political observers in the Mauritanian capital have warned that Taya could be swept from power if he is unable to pacify the growing number of Mauritanians who feel disenfranchised by his regime.
Ould Taya, who staged a crackdown on Islamic radicals earlier this year, narrowly survived a bloody coup attempt in June. The presidential palace was shelled by tanks during the uprising and he was forced to go into hiding for 24 hours.
Saleh Ould Hannena, a former army officer who was the ringleader of the failed putsch, is still at large. He was warned that he and his followers are ready to strike again. — Irin