The trial of Mauritania’s former president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has opened with the former head of state answering to accusations he amassed an illicit personal fortune during his 11 years in power.
Aziz, a 66-year-old former general, appeared in court on Wednesday in the capital Nouakchott alongside nine other defendants, including former prime ministers, cabinet ministers and businessmen, AFP reports.
They face charges that include abuse of office, influence peddling, money laundering and illicit enrichment.
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 he return allegedly stolen money.
“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.
Denial of allegations
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 militant insurgency that has swept across other countries in the Sahel – a categorisation used for a group of countries comprising Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
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 of financial misconduct.
Aziz is suspected of siphoning off money from state 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.
He describes himself as the victim of score-settling and argues that he has immunity from prosecution under the constitution.
“He completely rejects the accusations against him,” one of his lawyers, Taleb Khayar Ould Med Mouloud, said ahead of the trial.