One month after seizing power in a bloodless coup, Mauritania’s new military rulers have announced a sweeping amnesty for political crimes, freeing scores of prisoners over the weekend, including a band of coup plotters and alleged Islamic extremists.
Many of those released had been detained earlier this year as part of a crackdown on Islamic militants by then-president Maaouya Ould Taya.
Opposition leaders and some international analysts had said at the time that Ould Taya was exaggerating the Islamic threat to win plaudits from the United States and as an excuse to round up legitimate opponents.
In a speech broadcast on state radio on Friday night, the head of the governing Military Council for Justice and Democracy, Col Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, said the government has decided to allow “a general, full and complete amnesty to all Mauritanians condemned for political crimes or offences, in order to permit them to participate in the work of building the country in complete freedom.”
On Saturday, Justice Minister Mahfoudh Ould Battah told reporters that some 20 people had been excluded from the general pardon. They are alleged to have worked with Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a movement allied to Al Qaeda.
Analysts have said that the new rulers, although seeking to set themselves firmly apart from the former regime, are keen not to make potentially damaging waves with the United States or other western nations by appearing soft in the "war on terror".
Among those allowed to walk free over the weekend are Saleh Ould Hanenna and Abderahmane Ould Mini - two military officers who earlier this year were sentenced to life in prison for trying to overthrow Ould Taya on a number of occasions in 2003 and 2004.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the main prison in the capital Nouakchott and mobbed Ould Hanenna as he emerged from jail.
"All the Mauritanian people have been released from a big prison," Hanenna was quoted as saying by Reuters on his release. "I congratulate the Mauritanian people for having got rid of a tyrant."
Mauritania's justice minister said those being released could now participate in the democratic transition.
The junta, which put an end to two decades of Ould Taya's rule by seizing power when the was out of the country on 3 August, has promised a return to elected government, with fresh presidential elections within two years.