Mauritania’s former president faces corruption charges in landmark trial

The trial of Mau­ritania’s former president, Mo­hamed Ould Abdel Aziz, opened on Wednesday with the dramatic image of the former head of state in a cage-like box answer­ing accusations he amassed an illicit personal fortune during his 11 years in power.

Aziz, a 66-year-oldformer gener­al, appeared in court in the capital Nouakchott alongside nine other defendants, including former prime ministers, cabinet ministers and businessmen, an AFP reporter said.

They face charges that include abuse of office, influence ped­dling, money laundering and illicit enrichment.

Proceedings began with a roll call of the defendants to which Aziz — dressed in a traditional boubou, a surgical mask concealing part of his thin moustache — rose and raised his hand.

Hundreds of police stood guard outside as around one hundred lawyers packed the courtroom, where cameras and mobile phones were prohibited.

Outside, dozens of people gathered ahead of the trial, some to support Aziz, others with signs demanding him to return the allegedly stolen money.

Prosecutions of former heads of state are rare in the world, but especially so in Africa.

“It is a first in the history of Mauritania and perhaps even in the Arab world for a former pres­ident to explain his enrichment,” Brahim Ebetty, one of several lawyers representing the state, told AFP.

Aziz, a trader’s son who came to power in a bloodless coup, stepped down in 2019 after two terms in which he defused a jihadist insurgency that has swept across other countries in the Sahel.

He was succeeded by his former right-hand man, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, in the first peaceful transfer of power between elected leaders in the history of a coun­try marked by military coups and upheaval.

But within months of the handover, allegations emerged offinancial misconduct.

Aziz is suspected of siphoning money off the state’s contracts or the sale of real estate, amassing a fortune equivalent to more than $72 million.

“All the people in the box have used the name of the state, the function of the state, (to enrich themselves) — especially Mr Aziz,” Ebetty said.

The former president has denied the allegations but refused to answer investigators’ questions about the sources of his wealth. —AFP

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