UPDATED: Anti-Slavery Activist Biram Dah Abeid Transferred to Nouakchott Central Prison
In the early morning of Tuesday, 7 August 2018, Mauritanian police took internationally recognized anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid into custody. Being the leader of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania (IRA-Mauritanie), local police forces had arrested him in his home in Nouakchott at 5:30 am local time, and subsequently taken to a police station in Southern Nouakchott. As news of his arrest spread, local activists gathered for spontaneous protests in front of the Riad police station where the IRA leader is currently being held. To justify the arrest, the police presented a complaint by a journalist who accused Biram Dah Abeid of allegedly threatening him, a claim that has been strongly rejected by the IRA. Mr Abeid has been arrested multiple times for his activism and had last been released in May 2016, after having spent 20 months of a 2-year sentence on false charges of “inciting trouble” and belonging to an “unrecognized organisation”. With legislative elections planned for 1 September 2018, IRA Mauritania states that the arrest is the product of political persecution against their organisation and its leader, who was planning to present his candidacy and was a vocal supporter of other anti-slavery activists who had planned in running in the upcoming polls for Members of Parliament. In a letter sent from his cell, Biram Dah Abeid stresses that his arrest was politically motivated and that it was no coincidence that he was arrested exactly on the day that constituted the deadline for candidates to register on the ballot with the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI).
-- UPDATE: After a hearing at Nouakchott South Courth on 13 August 2018, Biram Dah Abeid has been transferred from Riadh police station to Nouakchott's central prison for remand detention. --
-- UPDATE: Listen here to a audio statement by Biram Dah Abeid, submitted in reaction to his arrest. --
More than 29 million people live in some form of enforced servitude in the world today, but nowhere is slavery as prevalent as in Mauritania, even though, on paper, the country criminalized slavery with the 2007 Anti-Slavery Law. Most slaves are members of the darker-skinned Haratin community, who have to endure harsh living conditions and systematic discrimination. Slave status is passed down from generation to generation and estimates of the percentage of the country’s population living in slavery range from 4 to 20 percent, amounting to more than 600,000 people living in slave-like conditions.
Biram Dah Abeid, a recipient of the prestigious United Nations Human Rights Prize, is internationally renowned for fighting against this caste-based slavery in Mauritania. Being a former slave himself, the Mauritanian government has repeatedly tried to silence him and other activists in the country in what constitutes a systematic and brutal crack-down on the anti-slavery movement. Mr Abeid was previously arrested in 2010 and 2012. He received the death sentence in 2012 for burning the “Abrégé de Khalil” (a non-sacred interpretation of Islam). Furthermore, he was arrested again during a peaceful protest march in November 2014, only a few months after coming second in Mauritania’s Presidential Election, which were widely criticized as unfair. Given his plans to potentially run again in the 2019 presidential elections, the most recent arrest can be seen as both punishment for his anti-slavery activism and yet another attempt to silence Mauritania’s political opposition.
The crackdown on the anti-slavery movement has been well-documented by the media, United Nations and European Union representatives and fellow human rights organization. Most recently, Amnesty International released a comprehensive report on the repression of activists speaking out against discrimination and slavery in Mauritania and, earlier this year, UNPO and IRA-Mauritania had documented the systematic torture and ill-treatment of imprisoned anti-slavery activists in a joint report submitted on the occasion of the 64th Session of the UN’s Committee against Torture, during which Mauritania will be under review. Imprisoned activists are routinely denied fair process and regular court proceedings, as pointed out by a number of UN Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups in October 2016, who stated that “legal proceedings are politically motivated and [intend] to suffocate groups and individuals that promote human rights and oppose government policies”.
It was only on 1 August 2018 that Biram Dah Abeid had returned to Mauritania from the United States of America where he had participated in a Congressional Briefing on the issue of slavery in the Sahel. In the following days, he had held three public meetings in Nouakchott, gaining him more popular support. The day of his latest arrest, 7 August 2018, was also the deadline Mauritania's Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) had set for candidates to register on the ballot for the upcoming legilative elections on 1 September 2018. It seems most likely that Biram Dah Abeid's success in bringing both international and domestic attention to the issue of slavery and human rights violations is a thorn in the side of the Mauritanian government and the reason for its most recent repressive response.
At Riadh police station, Biram Dah Abeid was held in unsanitary prison conditions, in a bare, filthy and dilapidated prison cell without a window. It was only after an intervention by the President of the Mauritanian Bar Association that he was at least given a small mat and a mosquito net. Biram Dah Abeid was able to send out a letter from his prison cell, decrying the political motivation behind his arrest which seems to be also intended to threaten other contenders who are part of the IRA-Sawab coalition, to prevent them from running in the polls on 1 September 2018. After a court hearing in Nouakchott South at 12:00 pm on Monday, 13 August 2018, Biram Dah Abeid was transferred from Riadh police station to Nouakchott's central prison for remand detention.
Following this most recent, alarming development and reports of the torture of some imprisoned anti-slavery campaigners in the past, UNPO urges the Mauritanian authorities to clarify based on which charges Mr Abeid has been taken into custody, to guarantee full access to legal counsel and, in the most likely case that the politically-motivated charges brought against him are substantially unfounded, immediately and unconditionally release him. In addition, UNPO calls upon the Mauritanian government to put an end to their decades-long clampdown on the anti-slavery movement in the country.
Biram Dah Abeid's most recent arrest has been widely covered by the international media. For additional information, see for instance:
- The Guardian, Mauritanian presidential hopeful arrested amid fears of political foul play, 9 August 2018 (link)
- RFI, Arrestation de Biram Dah Abeid, président du mouvement IRA, 8 August 2018 (link)
- Repubblica, Mauritania, arrestato il leader anti-schiavitu Biram Dah Abeid, 9 August 2018 (link)
- L'Humanité, L'Homme du jour: Biram Dah Abeid, 10 August 2018 (link)
- BBC Afrique, L'arrestation de Biram est une tentative de musellement, 14 August 2018 (link)
- Le Monde Afrique, En Mauritanie, inculpation d'un opposant et militant anti-esclavagiste, 14 August 2018 (link)
- Amnesty International, Mauritania: Arrests of opposition leader, anti-slavery activist and two journalists point to worrying pre-election crackdown, 15 August 2018 (link)
The Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement and its local chapters released various press releases on Biram Dah Abeid's arrest: