A judge in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott on Thursday charged ex-president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and about ten other figures with corruption, following an investigation into his decade-long rule.
The move marks the latest step in the downfall of Aziz, a former general who seized power in the Saharan state in 2008, which began when investigators started probing his financial affairs last year.
Following a state prosecutor’s request, the judge also placed Aziz, one of his sons-in-law, two former prime ministers, five former government ministers and four businessmen under judicial supervision, according to a source close to the case.
Mohameden Ould Icheddou, one of Aziz’s lawyers, confirmed the information to AFP. He added that his client refused to answer questions from the judge, claiming constitutional immunity.
Aziz, 64, launched a military coup in 2008 and served two terms as president before being succeeded in August 2019 by Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani, his former right-hand man and ex-defence minister.
Ghazouani has kept Aziz at arm’s length since he came to power, however.
Last year, Mauritania’s parliament established a commission to investigate suspected embezzlement under Aziz
Among other issues, the inquiry probed the handling of oil revenue, the sale of state property, the winding up of a publicly owned food-supply company and the activities of a Chinese fishing firm.
Police then detained Aziz in August for questioning in the case, before stripping him of his passport.
The former president refused to answer questions then too.
“I am a victim of a settling of old scores, but I am going to defend myself,” Aziz said after his release from detention in August.
After months of investigation, Aziz was summoned on Wednesday to a hearing with the state prosecutor, who interviewed about 30 people allegedly implicated before deciding to request charges for about ten.
Aziz’s defence lawyers said that the case is “about dragging a whole system and its men before the police and besmirching their honour.”
The prosecutor Ahmedou Ould Abdallahi said he did not ask the judge to place Aziz in custody because the case against him is likely to be lengthy.
Abdallahi added that cash and assets – including companies, apartments and vehicles – worth the equivalent of about 96 million euros ($115 million) had already been seized as part of the investigation.
Of that sum, the equivalent of about 67 million euros ($80 million) belonged to one of the suspects, whom the prosecutor did not name.
Aziz had already ignored a call to testify before the parliamentary inquiry into his suspected corruption in early July.
But Mauritanian MPs swiftly approved a law to set up a High Court of Justice that would be empowered to try presidents and ministers in cases of “high treason”.
Aziz’s legal team insists that the constitution protects the former president from prosecution, however.
In August, the parliamentary inquiry formally handed its report into the former general’s affairs to the state prosecutor’s office.
The move prompted a government reshuffle in Mauritania, with Ghazouani replacing four ministers whose names had surfaced in the investigation.
In December, Aziz also lost the leadership of the party he had founded, the Union for the Republic.
A source close to the prosecutor’s office, who declined to be named, said that the list of charges against Aziz is long, including money laundering, embezzlement and obstruction of justice.