WAD NAGA, Mauritania - Mauritania wrapped up its largest-ever trial Thursday, issuing guilty verdicts to 84 putschists and acquitting more than 100 others including a former president accused of bankrolling three plots to overthrow President Maaouiya Ould Taya.
Four ringleaders of the plots starting with a bloody uprising in June 2003 and followed by back-to-back attempts in August and September of last year were sentenced to life in prison by the military and civilian jury presided by chief justice Mohamed El Hadi Mohamed.
Jail terms ranging from 15 years to 18 months were imposed against 80 other defendants, many of whom have been in prison since the June 7-9 coup attempt in 2003, that was foiled in a 36-hour gunbattle with loyalist soldiers at a military barracks near the capital, Nouakchott.
Death sentences had been recommended for 17 defendants including coup mastermind Saleh Ould Henenna, a former army major, and his associate, former captain Abderrahmane Ould Mini, alone among the 176 defendants who appeared in court to plead guilty to charges filed against them.
They refused, however, to answer charges that they had taken arms against Mauritania, a vast mostly-Muslim nation that straddles Arab and African culture and is among the world's poorest despite abundant mineral and oil wealth.
Slavery was only abolished in 1980, underscoring the deep racial and ethnic divisions that Ould Hennena said were the impetus behind his bid to oust Ould Taya, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1984.
In his closing argument on Sunday, he called for "a political act of salvation for the Mauritanian people" similar to the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Portugal, Sudan and Mali.
Life sentences were imposed in absentia on Mohamed Ould Salek and Mohamed Ould Cheikhna, the founder of the exiled band of renegade military officers known since June 2003 as Knights of Change.
Former president Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, ousted in 1984 by Ould Taya, was acquitted on charges he bankrolled the putsch attempts and spared a five-year jail term that had been recommended by prosecutors.
Also acquitted for their alleged financing of the plots were opposition leaders Cheikh Ould Horma and Ahmed Ould Daddah.
Lawyer Fatimata Mbaye, one of the 70 lawyers assigned as defense counsel for the military and civilian defendants, said appeals would be filed to the supreme court within the 15-day deadline set by the court.
Reactions in the packed courtroom ranged from jubilation to tears from family members, many of whom made the 50-kilometer (30-mile) trek almost daily to support their loved ones at the trial that opened November 21 at a makeshift courtroom attached to the Wad Naga prison, east of the capital.
Taya's government, a strong ally of both the United States and France and one of just three Arab countries with diplomatic links with Israel, had accused Libya and Burkina Faso of backing the coup plots, saying the putschists had ties to Islamists who are gaining ground among the country's 2.7 million people.
Others suggested that the plots to overthrow Taya were linked to Mauritania's support for the US invasion of Iraq, as Ould Hennena reportedly commanded a tank unit that had been equipped in the late 1980s and early 1990s by deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.