Mauritania: The high price of a peaceful struggle against slavery and discrimination

By Moussa Biram, militant de l’Initiative pour la résurgence du mouvement abolitionniste (IRA) en Mauritanie

Moussa Biram is an activist with the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) in Mauritania. He is in prison with fellow activist Abdallahi Mattalah. On 13 November, they will have spent 500 days in a prison in the Mauritanian desert from where Moussa has written an open letter to recall their difficult detention conditions and their courage in defending those who fight to combat slavery.

“Once again this morning, just as for the past 500 days, we woke up in prison. For 500 days now, my friend Abdallahi and I have been separated from our families and friends, detained in this no man’s land in the middle of the Bir Moghreïn desert at the northern tip of Mauritania. Our days here are dark, sweltering, with no external human contact or interaction with our fellow inmates, most of whom are on death row.

We have been in prison for 500 days, unable to see our loved ones who count the most: we miss the innocent smiles of our children and the special moments with our spouses and friends. We are paying a high price for our peaceful struggle against slavery and discrimination in Mauritania.

Abdallahi and I were certainly born free but we are both the descendants of slaves. In our country, Mauritania, slavery – although forbidden – continues to be practised. Entire families still belong to their masters and are forced to serve their owners all their lives.

For this struggle, Abdallahi and I were each sentenced to 1,095 days (three years) in prison, starting 23 November 2016. During the first days, we were tortured in a secret prison in Nouakchott. The Mauritanian authorities accuse us of having participated in the Gazra protest in Bouamatou , a Nouakchott slum. But we neither participated in nor organized the protest. The truth is our only crime is this peaceful struggle we are waging against slavery and discrimination in Mauritania.

This morning, I confess I do not really know how I feel. This detention is a first for my fellow inmate Abdallahi and I. But it is unlikely to be the last either for us or for our comrades in the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA). As Abdallahi likes to say “our days in prison have tripled our determination”.
Since our arrest, we have been caught up in a vicious cycle: humiliation in the eyes of our young children and wives, detention in secret prisons for several days, torture, sham trials and a refusal by the prosecutor to open investigations into claims of torture even though we bore visible scars. And to cap it all, since December 2016, we have been transferred to Bir Moghreïn prison, 1,100 kilometres from the capital, Nouakchott, and our families.

Moussa Biram, un militant de l’Initiative pour la résurgence du mouvement abolitionniste (IRA) en Mauritanie est en prison avec son camarade Abdallahi  Mattalah. Moussa Biram, un militant de l’Initiative pour la résurgence du mouvement abolitionniste (IRA) en Mauritanie est en prison avec son camarade Abdallahi  Mattalah.
This detention is a first for my fellow inmate Abdallahi and I. But it is unlikely to be the last either for us or for our comrades in the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA)

Today, after over 500 days during which we have been transferred back and forth between four prisons, including a secret prison, we do not know where we stand. We have appealed our sentences. We have been waiting a year for the Supreme Court to open our case.


Abdallahi and I share our days at the Bir Moghreïn prison. Over 10 months in a prison in the middle of the desert, in no man’s land. The days remain dark, sweltering and empty, with neither external human contact nor the possibility of interacting with our fellow inmates, most of whom are on death row. And yet we do not want our families crossing this dangerous area, which has neither a tarmac road nor even a rough track, just to see us.

On this day 500, Abdallahi and I would like to thank our friends and families for their solidarity and determination. The memory of their determined faces the night before we were formally charged by the Public Prosecutor’s Office strengthens our courage every day. We must continue to have the courage to change the world and defend those who fight to combat slavery in Mauritania. Because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It is our duty fight not only this crime against humanity but also discrimination. After 500 days of detention, Abdallahi and I remain more committed than ever to realizing our dream of living in a Mauritania free from slavery, racism and discrimination. A just and fair Mauritania.


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The original of this Blog was published in French by Le Monde Afrique on 13 November 2017