Mauritania: taking a stand against slavery

By AMADOU TIDJANE DIOP *

The image would seem archaic, dating back to a bygone era when men and women were called upon to serve others without any right to eat the food of those who claim to be their masters.

And yet this image persists in one country, Mauritania, where the freedom required for each citizen in order to fully exercise their rights is all too often missing. In this country that is my own, where slavery was abolished 35 years ago, people continue to be the victims of slavery and discrimination.

I have devoted my life, along with other men and women, to fighting slavery and helping to give new-found dignity to those who are disparagingly known as Haratin, the descendants of slaves, in Mauritania.
Amadou Tidjane Diop

This shocking reality has motivated and fuelled my desire to stand up to this anachronistic and discriminatory practice, in a country that does nevertheless prone equality in its constitution. I have devoted my life, along with other men and women, to fighting slavery and helping to give new-found dignity to those who are disparagingly known as Haratin, the descendants of slaves, in Mauritania.

Through the Initiative for the Revival of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA-Mauritanie), an anti-slavery organization, I have found the necessary space to express my revulsion freely. Such commitment requires sacrifices, however, and, in a country like Mauritania, such work exposes you to repression and arbitrary arrests, as I found out recently at my own expense.

I am writing to you today from the Dar Naïm Prison, located close to 30 km from Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, where I have been held for the last three months, along with 12 other anti-slavery activists unfairly sentenced to 3, 5 and 15-year prison terms. Our sole crime: to have fought slavery. Who would have expected such stiff penalties?

On 30 June 2016, I was dragged out of my bed at 08.00 AMby four police and intelligence officers. They seized my telephones and ransacked my home. I spent 12 days unable to speak to my family, or even a lawyer. In the days following my arrest, 12 more of my fellow activists were arrested at their homes and workplaces.

While in custody, we learned that our arrest was linked to a spontaneous demonstration on June 29th held by inhabitants of Bouamtou a slum area of Nouakchott—who are mostly Haratin (descendants of slaves)—who were being threatened with eviction due to the forthcoming Arab League Summit to be held that July.

However, despite raiding our homes and offices, seizing our computers and mobiles, checking our incoming and outgoing calls, and going through our emails and Facebook accounts, the Mauritanian police were unable to establish the slightest connection between my colleagues and I, and the events in Boumatou.

My colleagues Abdellahi Matallah Seck, Balla Touré, Khatri Rahel Mbareck, Jemal Beylil and Moussa Biram were subjected to torture during their custody. Their hands and feet were tied in painful positions for long hours at a time.

They were interrogated on their alleged planning of and participation in the protest on June 29th. As for me, I was abused and threatened with death during my interrogation, and forced to eat food containing sand without any water to drink.

And yet this protest was not organized by IRA-Mauritanie and none of its members were involved, a fact that was, furthermore, confirmed by residents of the shanty town. All the more absurd was seeing my friend, Mohamed Jarroulah, sentenced to three years in prison when, at the time of the protest, he was working in Bousteille, 1,200 km away!  

This sentence and others targeting IRA-Mauritanie members via trials held in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 ,2015 and now 2016 only reinforce the feeling that anti-slavery activists are now working under constant threat of prosecution.

Under internal and external pressure, the State sometimes backs down, for example by adopting laws that criminalize slavery. And yet, at the same time, anti-slavery activists continue to be persecuted. The authorities must put an end to this reign of terror and cease repressing anti-slavery activists and human rights defenders more generally.

Our organization submitted an application for recognition in 2008 and, to this day, has been neither recognized nor authorized by the Mauritanian authorities. Every IRA-Mauritanie activist runs the risk of being convicted of "belonging to an unrecognized organization" at any time.

Despite this, I echo the voices of my detained comrades and reaffirm that neither attempts at intimidation, nor repression, detention or even heavy prison sentences will shake our organization’s commitment and determination to continue its work until Mauritania no longer suffers from slavery and racism. We will continue our peaceful protests for as long as it may be necessary.

The authorities must put an end to this reign of terror and cease repressing anti-slavery activists and human rights defenders
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As anti-slavery activists, it matters little to us whether the person running the country is Black African, Haratin, Moor or all three! Nor whether they come from the North, the Adrar Plateau or the far reaches of our life-giving river. None of this matters at all as long as they are able to build a Mauritania that is free from slavery and from all forms of discrimination. A Mauritania in which human rights defenders are neither persecuted, nor convicted of crimes they did not commit. 

This text is translated from French. The original was published by Jeune Afrique 

*Amadou Tidjane Diop (47 years), is Vice-President of the anti-slavery organization, IRA-Mauritanie (Initiative for the Revival of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania). He was sentenced to 15 years in prison by the Criminal Court of Nouakchott West, in the Mauritanian capital. Amadou is a banker and teaches in higher education. A father of two, he suffers from heart problems for which he is unable to receive the appropriate medical treatment in prison. He is writing from Dar Naïm Prison (naïm means “happy” in Arabic and denotes one of the gardens of paradise), renamed "Jahannam"’ (hell) by its inmates because of the squalid conditions, overpopulation (around 1,300 detainees in a prison with capacity for 300), promiscuity and prolonged pre-trial detentions.