Lawyers defending Mauritanian opposition leader Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla against charges of threatening state security, walked out of court on Tuesday in the capital, Nouakchott, forcing a temporary suspension of hearings.
Ould Haidalla, runner-up in last month's presidential elections, first appeared in court on Monday in a court session that lasted more than six hours. That court session only ended in the evening when Haidalla, who had been fasting, proved too weak to answer questions.
Outside court, police toting batons threw teargas at hundreds of his supporters trying to enter the court room and attend the trial that was conducted largely in Arabic, Mauritania’s official language.
Defence lawyers asked that the proceedings be nullified and Ould Haidalla, who was arrested on 9 November along with 14 opposition supporters, be released.
Diabira Maroufa, one of the defense lawyers, said lawyers told court the trial should be nullified because it was riddled with irregularities and other violations of the due process of law. But the presiding judge ruled that the trial should continue.
On Tuesday, the presiding judge ruled that one of Ould Haidalla's lawyers, who also served as a campaign manager to the former presidential candidate, was in contempt of court. This prompted a walk-out in protest by the defense lawyers.
Ould Haidalla, a former army colonel who ran this large desert state from 1980-84, was detained for alleged "conspiracy to destroy or change the government" and for committing "acts exposing Mauritania to a war declaration" in "complicity with a foreign power."
He won 18.67 percent of the votes in the 7 November elections. Incumbent President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, who overthrew him in 1984, won 66 percent of votes and will remain president of this Islamic state for six more years.
The day before elections, Ould Haidalla was arrested for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. He was released later but re-arrested two days after the polls.
Others arrested with him and expected to appear in court include Ould Haidalla's campaign spokesman who is also a University professor, Ely Ould Sneiba; opposition parliamentarian Ismaela Ould Amar and one of Haidalla's sons.
Renowned lawyer Brahim Ould Ebety last week denounced the trial as "void". If found guilty, Ould Haidalla could face between 20 years in jail with forced labour and a life term, lawyers said.