Thank you for reparations – but where is the justice?

Twenty years after a military regime killed hundreds of mostly black Mauritanians, another military government is promising to compensate their families. While some victims’ associations welcome reparations, other affected families and many NGOs say compensation equals impunity for those who ordered the killings – and remain in power.

“Three of the officers responsible for extrajudicial killings in the 1990s are once again in power in the military council,” said Abdel Jemal Nasser Ould Yessa with the Mauritanian human rights group S.O.S. Esclaves. “They have killed once before. What is to stop them from killing again?”

Following a 6 August coup that ousted President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, a 12-member military council declared itself the desert country’s new government.

On 25 March coup leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz pledged in a ceremony in Kaédi – a community 430km south of the capital Nouakchott that is home to many of the victims – that the government would compensate families of 244 identified victims with cash or property.

Former Peulh army lieutenant Abou Sy, who told IRIN he was arrested, jailed and a witness to widespread beatings and killings, said victims’ families need such recognition to honour the memory of those killed.

Border violence

In the late 1980s tensions grew between Senegal and Mauritania after Mauritania jailed black army officers – many with Peulh family ties across the border in Senegal – following a coup attempt against the Arab-dominated government of President Maaouiya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya.

A 1989 land dispute between herders and farmers fuelled political and ethnic tensions on both sides of the border; after thousands of light-skinned Mauritanians living in Senegal were expelled, the Mauritanian military responded with widespread beatings that forced out tens of thousands of people, the majority of whom were black.

''...No amount of money, none, would equal the value of a human life...''

More than 500 Mauritanians died during the crackdown, according to 1994 investigations by Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).


Officials and victims’ families declined to give figures for the reparations. “No amount of money, none, would equal the value of a human life,” said Abdel Aziz at the ceremony.

But money cannot equate – and could even obstruct – justice, said Fatimata M’Baye, president of the Mauritanian Association of Human Rights. “To compensate is not enough. The killers have to be brought to justice, if not, that [reparations] opens the way for impunity.”

Widow Maïmouna Sy told IRIN her husband, a customs official, was killed in 1990 because he was black. “If only [former President] Maaouiya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya were brought to justice, I would finally have peace.”

Ould Taya was overthrown in a 2005 coup and now lives in exile in Qatar.

Ousted President Abdallahi had pledged during the 2007 campaign to pursue national unity and reconciliation related to the 1990s murders.

In November 2007 Abdallahi convened a roundtable on national unity. Nine months later he was deposed and put under house arrest when the military council took power.

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Since independence in 1960 a succession of military leaders has ruled Mauritania until the 2007 election that brought Abdallahi to power.

The military council led by Abdel Aziz has pledged to hold a presidential election on 6 June. In interviews with Arab media Abdel Aziz has said he will honour the constitution, which prevents the military from holding office, by resigning from the military 40 days before the election – in which he will be a candidate.