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Activists Persecuted for Opposing Land-Grab-Driven Slavery in Mauritania

School children in Mauritania via wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0

School children in Mauritania via wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0

Many Mauritanian citizens cannot wait for the year 2014 year to end. Unfortunately, 2015 does not look promising either. 

First, blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed faces a death penalty sentence imposed on December 26 for blasphemy, though he denies insulting the prophet, saying his blog commentary was a reflection on an unjust social order based on a caste system that marginalizes underprivileged communities. 

This cast system is also what has driven many activists in Mauritania to protest the ongoing land grabs by corporations against local farmers who are then forced to work the land they previously owned. One such activist is Biram Dah Abeid, head of the Initiative pour la Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste en Mauritanie IRA (the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolition Movement in Mauritania). He and other Mauritanian human rights activists were arrested on November 11, 2014.

Biram Dah Ould Obeid vi wikipedia - CC-BY-20

Biram Dah Ould Obeid vi wikipedia – CC-BY-20

In 2013, Dah Abeid received the United Nations Human Rights Award and the Front Line Defenders At Risk. He organized a nationwide rally to raise awareness about land-grab slavery—a practice that has proven especially harmful for the Haratin people, a community made of mostly farmers. Some of the rally's participants were arrested in November.

In this video, Dah Abeid explains the work of the initiative: 

Front Line Defenders, an international human rights organization, posted the following notice on their website :  

On 11 November 2014, Biram Dah Abeid and eight of his colleagues from IRA were charged and held in pre-trial detention in the prison in Rosso, because they took part in an illegal caravan of protest calling for the final abolition of slavery in Mauritania. Biram and his colleagues were held in isolation, beaten and had their mobile phones taken. Then, on 17 December, Biram and his colleagues were informed that their trial would be held the following day, even though his lawyers had not been given advance notice so they could prepare his defence. In Mauritania the practice of slavery persists in a more traditional way [..] continuing to live as chattel slaves to their masters. In practice, this means they can be bought and sold, hired out, or given away as gifts 

 In a press release on November 12, Amnesty International demanded that the activists be set free

Ces arrestations s'inscrivent dans une répression croissante visant les militants anti-esclavagistes en Mauritanie. En octobre, quatre membres de l'IRA ont été appréhendés dans la plus grande mosquée de Nouakchott, la capitale, alors qu'ils réagissaient à des critiques formulées contre leur organisation. Ils ont été accusés d'avoir perturbé le déroulement des prières et incité à la révolte, entre autres charges. Ils sont maintenus en détention sans jugement.

These arrests are part of a growing crackdown on anti-slavery activists in Mauritania. In October, four IRA members were arrested in the largest mosque of the capital city Nouakchott, when they were simply responding to criticisms of their organization. They were accused of disrupting prayers and inciting unrest, among other charges. They are also currently held in detention without trial.

From his jail cell, Dah Abeid called on all human rights activists in Mauritania to get involved in the civil rights movement in a peaceful manner. He also added a message to the authorities: 

D’autre part j’envoie le message suivant aux autorités : […]  Nous sommes animés de l’esprit du sacrifice qui nous confère de résister moralement à toute condamnation même à mort car nous dédions notre vie pour les opprimés, pour les humbles, pour la démocratie»

I am sending this message to the authorities: […] We are driven by the spirit of sacrifice that gives us the moral drive to resist any sentencing because we dedicate our lives to the oppressed, to the humble, to democracy. 

Manifestations de IRA Mauritanie

“No to Slavery” says a banner at a rally organized by IRA Mauritania from their Facebook page with permission

They day following the arrest, Mauritanian diaspora in Europe and North America published a statement condemning the arrests: 

Le succès de cette campagne et la mobilisation des populations locales ont fait peur au gouvernement qui a alors décidé de réprimer ces défenseurs des droits de l’homme lors de l’étape finale de la caravane. En effet, arrivés à Rosso le matin Mardi 11 Novembre 2014, ces militants furent accueillis par les forces de sécurité mauritaniennes qui procédèrent aux arrestations ; tous les arrêtés demeurent privés de tout contact extérieur.

The success of the anti-slavery rally and the mobilization of the local population threatened the government. They decided to repress these activists in the final lap of their rally. In fact, when they reached the town of Rosso, the activists were apprehended by police forces right away. No one was allowed to reach out to a lawyer or relatives.  

Anti-slavery organizations have tried on several occasions to alert international media to a potential civil war in Mauritania because of what they call “a systemic pro-slavery position of the state that always sides with the slave-owners.” They have urged the international community to support the eradication of land-grab-driven slavery, to preserve the social cohesion of the nation.

Biram Dah Abeid has been arrested several times prior to this year. There is a now Facebook group advocating his release from jail that has 1,530 members. 

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