A trial of unprecedented scale has been taking place in Nouakchott since Wednesday, January 25. After two years of proceedings carried out by the anti-corruption unit, twelve personalities linked to the economic and political spheres appear at the courthouse in the Mauritanian capital. Among them is Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, head of state from 2008 to 2019. At his side, Yahya Ould Hademine and Mohamed Salem Ould El-Béchir, former prime ministers. The other defendants held political and economic positions of the first rank in the 2010s.
Behind a closed gate in the courtroom are ministers and senior officials of public companies, such as the former director of the National Industrial and Mining Company (SNIM) or that of Somelec, the national electricity company . They must answer for financial crimes: "illicit enrichment", "abuse of functions", "concealment of proceeds of crime", "traffic of influence", "laundering"...
"More than sixty lawyers have to plead and the investigation file is nearly 10,000 pages, explains Mohamed Abdellahi Bellil, president of the Mauritanian Anti-Corruption Observatory, who is a civil party. This trial is exceptional because it constitutes a social and legal event. For the past week, Mauritanians have been following the pleadings in the media, on blogs, and commenting on each other's oratorical contests. »
"Test for our country"
On the first day of the hearing, dozens of people gathered in front of the courthouse, some to support Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, others to urge the former general, who came to power in a coup. in 2008 then elected president in 2009 and re-elected in 2014, to "give the money back". “We have to hear the law, writes Le Calame, one of the most widely read independent newspapers in the country, in its editorial of Tuesday, January 31. Law in all its nobility, in the service of truth. This is not about idealism or even ethics. It is very concretely our future that is at stake.”
In this poor country of 4.5 million inhabitants, ranked 140th out of 180 by the anti-corruption organization Transparency International, the desire to see social justice prevail is strong among the population. "Mauritania want a fair trial in which all parties will be able to express their arguments," said Mohamed Abdellahi Bellil. It is a test for the justice of the country: does the separation of powers exist? »
The discord between the fiery Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and the placid Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, who succeeded him as president in August 2019, fuels the conversations. Is she behind this lawsuit? The two men were "friends of forty years", according to them, brothers in arms too. In a country that has experienced many coups, their friendship was forged in the success of two putschs, then when Mohamed Ould Ghazouani was director of cabinet, then minister of defense of Mr. Aziz.
The first tensions appeared when the latter tried in vain to get his hands on the ruling party, the Union for the Republic (UPR), after his departure from the presidency. Then the rumor of a coup fomented by Mr. Aziz circulated. “This trial is obviously political, gets carried away Antoine Vey, one of the nine lawyers of the former president. In terms of the right of defense and the independence of justice, it escapes all international standards. Until my client says loud and clear that he is definitely retiring from politics, he will not be released! »
The first hearings were devoted to legal issues related in particular to the jurisdiction of the court. The trial, the duration of which has not been specified, must now enter its trial phase. In particular, the court will have to examine the charges of "influence peddling", "abuse of office" or "dissipation of public real estate" against Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, 66. Conducted by a parliamentary commission at the request of the National Assembly, a financial investigation has already been the subject of an explosive 800-page report in which the former president appears as the decision-maker in a system combining abuse of power and corruption, even if he is never mentioned by name.
"The Aziz Decade"
The document goes back to the awarding of several suspicious contracts (sale of state property, activities of a Chinese fishing company, etc.), but also to the management of public establishments during the "Aziz decade". "Most of the decision-makers responsible for the violations identified claimed that they were instructed by the former President of the Republic," the report concludes. No less than 109 infrastructure contracts were studied by the commission. "The State could not ignore the extent of the illegalities committed since more than 89% of the contracts were concluded by direct agreement", underlines the report.
In terms of fraud and tax evasion, the fishing sector, which represents 40% of exports in Mauritania, offers an eloquent example. "The IPR company is owned by people close to the former president who allowed him to organize massive embezzlement that resulted in significant tax evasion," the report said. He details, for example, how this company had entered into a partnership with foreign companies to operate a freezer boat to collect the catch of three trawlers "having benefited from safe-conducts issued by the Ministry of Fisheries to fraudulently tranship their cargo on the high seas. on the collecting boat. »
For ten years, profits, estimated at a minimum of 24 million dollars (21 million euros), would, according to the parliamentary commission of inquiry, have been diverted and placed in accounts in China, Hong Kong, Germany, Ireland or in Singapore. According to the prosecution, the total amount of property and assets "fraudulently dissipated" is estimated at 96 million euros.
During the trial, the former president will have to justify the origin of his fortune, which he describes as "huge". "But is Mr. Aziz's enrichment while in office illegal?" asks Antoine Vey. Is it the result of corruption? The charges were made by a political body, there was no investigation by an independent judicial authority. »