Through the 1960s and early 1970s, Mauritania's legal system bore the imprint of the French legal and judicial system. As the number of legal cadres rose, so did attempts to reconcile secular and Islamic law. In the meantime, Islamic courts coexisted alongside secular courts based on the French model. Neither appellate courts nor courts with constitutional jurisdiction existed. There were few secular lawyers; Mauritania's first French-trained lawyer was Daddah. The 1961 Constitution provided that French laws were to remain in effect until amended or repealed, as were French civil, commercial, and penal codes. The first Mauritanian chief justice of the Supreme Court was not appointed until November 1965, in accordance with a law requiring that a Muslim fill the position. As late as 1968, fully onequarter of Mauritania's judges (including almost all the secular law judges) were French. Only in the early 1970s were new labor and nationality codes adopted, along with new codes of penal, civil, commercial, and administrative procedure.
The sharia Islamic code, which was instituted in 1980, served as the law of the land in civil matters, except in certain socalled modern areas, such as nationality law and litigation involving corporations, automobiles, and aircraft. Sharia also covered such areas of public law as theft and murder. As in French law, no one was presumed innocent; thus an inability to convince the sitting magistrate that the government's charges were erroneous in itself constituted proof of guilt, as did firsthand testimony from a witness or codefendant. Defendants had the right to counsel and could appeal a verdict to the Supreme Court within fifteen days. As in secular courts, circumstantial evidence was inadmissable as proof of guilt. Plea bargaining was also common. Although Mauritanian law guaranteed expeditious arraignment and trial, the slow functioning of the state's inadequately funded judicial system frequently resulted in long pretrial detentions. Under legislation approved by the increasingly isolated President Daddah just prior to the 1978 coup, the state arrogated the authority to detain without trial or appeal anyone judged to be a national security threat. (The Taya government exercised that prerogative in September 1986 when it arrested thirteen blacks from the Toucouleur ethnic group, including prominent educators, politicians, and media figures, on charges of sedition and threatening national security.)
Although nearly all of Mauritania is Muslim, some opposition to the institution of sharia was expressed by blacks and women, who believed that it discriminated in favor of the white, Maure male population. Meanwhile, communal tensions resulting from a strict interpretation of sharia have waned over the years as courts have moderated their interpretation. This moderation has not prevented the government from more fully implementing previously ignored provisions of sharia, however. In October 1986, the government interdicted the introduction and sale of alcohol in Mauritania to all but foreign diplomats and technical assistants working for the government. Punishment for violating the ban was to be forty lashes administered in public as prescribed by sharia.
At the top of the judicial system in 1987 was the Supreme Court, which had six permanent members, including a president, who had to be a jurist in both Islamic and secular law. In addition, court members included two vice presidents, one Islamic and one secular; two ordinary counselors, also one Islamic and one secular; and a financial counselor, who served a two-year term and was selected jointly by the ministries of justice and finance. The six judges did not sit together to hear cases; the number and type of judge (secular or Islamic) depended on the nature of the case. The court had three areas of competence: appellate review, administrative litigation, and financial oversight. The Supreme Court also heard questions on constitutionality.
In judging constitutional cases before the 1978 coup, the court included only five judges: the president, the two vice presidents, and two extraordinary counselors, one of whom was appointed by the president of the republic and the other by the president of the National Assembly; both extraordinary counselors served two-year terms. (Under military rule, both were chosen by the head of state with advice from the CMSN.) The court ruled on the constitutionality of proposed projects, laws, or treaties at the request of the president; determined the eligibility of presidential candidates; adjudicated electoral disputes; and supervised referenda and censuses. The court also closely supervised the normal activities of the National Assembly, ensuring its conformity to the Constitution. As the final appellate court, the Supreme Court heard appeals from the Court of First Instance and the Labor Court or appeals based on the lack of jurisdiction or a violation of due process from any other court. As an administrative court, it had first and final jurisdiction in litigation concerning state-owned property, the status of civil servants, and public administration. In its financial oversight role, the Supreme Court verified public accounts and imposed sanctions on civil servants found guilty of fraud or mismanagement.
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