From behind bars: my hope for freedom in Mauritania

By Biram Dah Abeid Prison d’Aleg, Mauritanie,

Aleg, Mauritania. In this vast expanse of sand stand a cluster of austere buildings, their paint bleached by the sun. This is Aleg prison. Inside languishes a man who has done nothing wrong. It is here, in this town ironically located on Mauritania's "highway of hope", that the authorities have been holding anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid since 11 November 2014. To mark one year since his arrest, he wrote this letter to remind the world of the continued fight against slavery in Mauritania and of those, like him, who are in prison for it.

Today, I write this letter from my cell in Aleg prison, where I am commemorating a sad anniversary. For a whole year, I have been held prisoner. My crime: fighting slavery. On 11 November 2014, I was arrested with other anti-slavery activists for organising a peaceful campaign against slavery practices in Mauritania and raising awareness among Mauritanians about land rights for the descendants of slaves.

In my country, Mauritania, slavery still exists. Entire families still belong to their master's family and are forced to serve their owners their whole lives. Many descendants of slaves still work on land over which they have no rights and are made to give part of their harvest to traditional masters.

In the past five years, I have been imprisoned three times. I have been locked up during key events of my adult life, including the birth of my daughter. I celebrated my 50th birthday behind bars on 12 January 2015.
Biram Dah Abeid

I have dedicated my whole life to the fight against slavery in Mauritania. My caste, the Haratin (the name given to slaves and former slaves), is made up of black Africans subjected to slavery by Arab-Berber masters. My father was freed by my grandmother's master. I am one of the tens of millions of descendants of slaves who make up the sizeable black diaspora in the Arab world.

My organisation, the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA-Mauritania) has been campaigning against slavery, injustice and impunity for almost 10 years. Black Mauritanians still live under the oppression, contempt and racism of ethnic and religious minorities who continue to plunder the land, hoard resources and assert their authority.

In Mauritania, anti-slavery activists and human rights defenders like me are frequently put in jail. In the past five years, I have been imprisoned three times. I have been locked up during key events of my adult life, including the birth of my daughter. I celebrated my 50th birthday behind bars on 12 January 2015.

Anti-slavery activists Brahim Bilal Ramdane, Biram Dah Abeid and Djiby Sow have been sentenced to prison for fighting to end slavery practices in Mauritania.

This past August, in preparation for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on 3 November 2015, the Mauritanian government began a “facelift”, adopting laws that punish anyone who exploits slaves. Yet, in practice, anti-slavery campaigners are detained or intimidated. Ironically, also in August, the government confirmed a two-year prison sentence against me and some of my partners in the fight against slavery.

More worrying, Mauritania, a member state of the United Nations, is violating several clauses of the founding charter, particularly those related to human rights. In Mauritania, there are flagrant breaches of the conventions that the country has ratified: slavery in all its forms, whether traditional or modern; racism and discrimination, especially against people of African descent; torture; enforced disappearances; secret imprisonment; and restrictions to freedom of opinion, expression, association and conscience.

On this unhappy anniversary, I would like to state that our fight for equal rights and against the slavery and marginalisation of black people in Mauritania is ongoing.
Biram Dah Abeid

From this dreary cell, where I am marking my first year in detention, I would like to remind the world that, yes, it is important to pass laws, but those laws are meaningless if they are not put into practice to uphold the rights of victims of injustice.

For us as human rights defenders, the emancipation of the Haratin community and the social groups that have suffered discrimination in Mauritania is crucial to ensuring freedom and human dignity are at the heart of building a strong and unified nation. On this unhappy anniversary, I would like to state that our fight for equal rights and against the slavery and marginalisation of black people in Mauritania is ongoing.

My commitment, our commitment, remains firm every day; the years in prison will do nothing to change that!

Today, I would like all citizens of the world, every state that respects freedom of expression and every human rights defender to pass on the message of our fight for human rights in Mauritania. I urge them to give their support, assistance and encouragement to all those who are working without violence but with courage and dedication to give all Mauritanians, from all backgrounds, the opportunity to thrive in a country where justice, equality, tolerance and respect have their rightful place.

Support Biram and the other anti-slavery activists in Mauritania. Take part in Amnesty International's #FreeAntiSlaveryActivists campaign to end their detention.