Slavery in Mauritania: The gap between words and actions

In August I had the privilege of meeting Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, the renowned anti-slavery activist and runner-up in the last Mauritanian presidential elections. We spoke for an hour about his life and his work. I would have liked to have spoken to him for longer. But this was not possible because our conversation took place in the courtyard of Aleg prison, one of the most dangerous prisons in Mauritania.

Biram Abeid has served over nine months of a two prison year sentence. He was arrested in November 2014, alongside 10 other campaigners, at a peaceful protest to raise awareness about land rights for people of slave descent. On Thursday, his sentence was heard by the appeal court. Awaiting that decision, I was just one of many people around the world hoping that his sentence would be overturned and that he would be able to return to his family. But when the news came, it was not good. The harsh sentences against Biram Abeid and two other anti-slavery campaigners, Brahim Bilal and Djiby Sow, were upheld.

All three are members of anti-slavery human rights organizations, Kawtal and the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA). Over the years they have been peacefully campaigning to raise awareness about human rights concerns, including the impunity enjoyed by slave owners and the discrimination and human rights violations faced by people of slave descent. In Mauritania slaves and their descendants work on land without any rights and are forced to give a portion of crops to their traditional masters.

Ironically, just days before the appeal trial, on 11 August 2015, Mauritania adopted a law defining slavery as a crime against humanity. It was hoped that this would signal a move towards promoting human rights but yesterday’s decision has dashed those hopes.

Alioune Tine

In July and August, when I headed an Amnesty International mission to Mauritania, I met with authorities including the Minister of Justice and the Commissioner of Human Rights. I also met with human rights defenders and I travelled more than 250 km from Nouakchott to Aleg to visit Biram in prison.

Its remote location has created problems for family members wishing to visit the activists in jail. Biram Abeid’s wife and children have had to move to a house in Aleg just to be close to him.

Amnesty International considers Biram Abeid, Brahim Bilal and Djiby Sow to be prisoners of conscience. All three of them have been detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights and they should be released immediately and unconditionally.

Speaking to our mission, Biram Abeid made an empassioned plea. 

I call on Mauritanian authorities to establish a constructive dialogue with anti-slavery activists, to open their doors and their hearts to begin resolving the problem of slavery. We believe that the attacks against freedom of expression and the imprisonment of human rights defenders are contrary to the country’s international legal commitments. Our place is not in prison but outside.

Biram Ould Dah ould Abeid

Those words are ever more poignant following yesterday’s appeals court decision.