Jan 07, 2015

Free Biram: Court Verdict Expected on 15 January 2015

Since the wave of arrests in November 2014, the Mauritanian Government has continued its clampdown of the anti-slavery movement and wider civil society in the country. The criminal court in Rosso has concluded its hearing of the case against the eight activists arrested on 11 November 2014, including the 2013 UN Human Rights Prize laureate Biram Dah Abeid. The court verdict is expected on 15 January 2015. 

Across Europe politicians came out in support of the arrested activists. Charles Tannock MEP and Mark Demesmaeker MEP, for instance, submitted a priority parliamentary question to the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs. National governments, such as France, have also issued statements calling for a fair and transparent trial of the activists.

Following the European Parliament’s urgent resolution on Mauritania on 18 December 2014, the National Assembly of Mauritania unanimously adopted a resolution on 23 December 2014. The resolution denounces the European Parliament’s urgent resolution on the matter and calls for the EU to stop interfering in the internal affairs of the country. It further calls upon the Mauritanian Government to defend the country’s sovereignty.

The Mauritanian Government arrested the eight anti-slavery activists during a peaceful protest, subsequently arrested more members of the prominent anti-slavery organization, IRA-Mauritania, and closed its headquarters in Nouakchott.  Mr Abeid, the President of IRA-Mauritania, was previously arrested in 2010 and 2012. The death sentence he received in 2012 for burning the ‘Abrégé de Khlil’ (a non-sacred interpretation of Islam) is still pending.

The imprisoned activists are charged with inciting violence, disturbing public order, offending members of the authorities and being members of an unregistered organization. Mr Abeid’s prominence and status as runner-up in the 2014 presidential election has noticeably changed the way he is treated. Compared to his colleagues, he has reportedly not been maltreated.

During the trial, which started on 24 December 2014, Mr Abeid accused the Mauritanian regime of targeting the leaders of the Haratin community. He stated that the peaceful caravan had been authorized by the Ministry of Interior. Moreover, he argued that IRA-Mauritania had previously filed an application to register their organization but had yet to receive a response. The prosecution requested a sentence of 5 years imprisonment, a fine of 540,000 UM (USD 1800) and for the confiscation of all property belonging to IRA-Mauritania. The last hearings took place on 31 December 2014, during which all imprisoned activists were denied bail. Meanwhile, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, a 28-year old blogger, was sentenced to death on 25 December 2014 for allegedly insulting the prophet, which he denies, in an article written about Islamic justifications for slavery.

These developments illustrate the Mauritanian Government’s continued disregard for its international, regional and national human rights obligations. According to 2014 Global Slavery Index, Mauritania has the highest percentage of slaves by population in the world. The country now faces two likely outcomes: if the campaigners are sentenced to prison, the Mauritanian elite will most probably see it as a precedence to continue possessing slaves; if, however, they are acquitted, this could be a catalyst for the anti-slavery movement to really take off in Mauritania. Therefore, it is imperative that the international community continues to pressure the Mauritanian authorities to release the imprisoned anti-slavery activists and adequately tackle slavery within the country.