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Mauritania keeps anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid in prison — and far away from parliament

Biram Dah Abeid at the Gironde county council in Bordeaux, accepting the Mémoires Partagées prize February 7, 2017, from the international association Mémoires et Partages. The photo was taken by Akunt'Arts.prod & Gaéty.D. CC-license-by-SA-4.0.

A long-standing figure in the fight against slavery, Biram Dah Abeid, is the president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist movement (IRA-Mauritania). He has also been in prison for the past three months allegedly for threatening a journalist with close ties to the Mauritanian regime.

According to the Global Slavery Index, there around 90,000 people are currently enslaved in Mauritania. Despite the existence of laws abolishing the practice, sociologists, historians and human rights organizations acknowledge that hereditary slavery persists in Mauritanian society, accompanied by abuse, human trafficking and rape.

Abeid was arrested before he had time to begin campaigning for a seat in Mauritania's parliament, having succeeded in being elected in the first round of parliamentary elections on September 1, 2018. Unfortunately, authorities continue to keep him in prison.

In response to the authorities’ refusal to release Abeid, several campaigns have been launched. Opposition leaders have made their voices heard, and according to Alakhbar.info, the opposition succeeded in suspending the first session of parliament:

Le vice-président de l’Assemblée nationale, Boidiel Ould Houmeid a arrêté la session après qu’une polémique a éclaté entre les députés de la majorité et ceux de l’opposition après l’omission du nom de Biram Dah Abeid de la liste des membres des commissions parlementaires.

Vice-president of the national assembly, Boidiel Ould Houmeid stopped the session after an argument erupted between officials from the majority and those of the opposition, after the omission of Biram Dah Abeid's name from the list parliamentary committee members.

In front of parliament, security forces violently suppressed a demonstration of activists demanding Abeid's release, as reported by futureafrique.net:

Des militants de l’IRA Mauritanie sont venus protester contre la poursuite de la détention de leur Président, Biram Dah Abeid, alors qu’il a recueilli les suffrages nécessaires pour être élu député.

Les unités de la police sont intervenues pour disperser violemment et réprimer dans le sang le rassemblement et on dénombre de nombreux blessés parmi lesquels Leila Ahmed, l’épouse de Biram Dah Abeid.

Activists from the IRA Mauritania came to protest the continued detention of their president, Biram Dah Abeid, even though he received the number of votes necessary for election. Police units intervened to violently disperse and bloodily repress the gathering, resulting in a number of wounded, among them Leila Ahmed, the wife of Biram Dah Abeid.

Solidarity around the world

The IRA-Mauritania chapter in Belgium issued a press release inviting human rights activists and supporters to a demonstration on October 11 in front of the Mauritanian Embassy in Brussels. A report published on the IRA-Mauritania Belgian chapter's Facebook page reiterates the demand for the “unconditional release of Biram Dah Abeid, elected by the people.”

In Chicago, Illinois (USA), a coalition of 12 nongovernmental organizations launched a petition on October 15 which has already received 233,000 signatures. A letter accompanying the petition, written in Arabic, French, and English, addressed to Mr. Dia Moctar Malal, the Mauritanian minister of justice, stated:

L’arrestation de Biram Dah Abeid, président de l’Initiative pour la résurgence du mouvement abolitionniste (IRA), et d’Abdellahi el Housein Mesoud (membre de l'IRA) le 7 août, ainsi que leur détention provisoire ultérieure, sont pour nous un sujet de grande préoccupation. Nous vous adressons cette lettre avant leur comparution afin que vous puissiez vous assurer qu'ils bénéficieront non seulement de toutes les garanties d'un procès équitable mais aussi d'une assistance juridique et d'une remise en liberté en attendant le procès.

Plus de 230 000 personnes dans le monde partagent notre inquiétude et ont signé une pétition* qui vous est adressée ainsi qu’au président Mohamed Ould Abel Aziz. Celle-ci demande la fin du harcèlement des militant-e-s antiesclavagistes et la libération de M. Abeid dans l'attente d’un procès équitable…

Leur détention dans une prison isolée dans le désert du Sahara, sans possibilité de recevoir la visite de leurs avocats ou de leurs familles, et durant laquelle ils auraient été victimes d’actes de torture et de mauvais traitements, a suscité l’inquiétude de la communauté internationale.

The arrest of  Biram Dah Abeid, president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist movement (IRA), and of Abdellahi el Housein Mesoud (member of IRA) August 7, as well as their subsequent pre-trial detention, are for us a great concern. We address this letter to you before their appearance so that you may ensure that they will benefit not only of all the guarantees of a fair trial but also from legal assistance and release pending trial.

More than 230,000 people in the world share our worry and have signed the petition which is addressed as well to President Mohamed Ould Abel Aziz. This requests the end to the harassment of anti-slavery activists and the release of Mr. Abeid while waiting for a fair trial.

Their detention in an isolated prison in the Sahara desert, without the possibility of receiving visits from their lawyers or families, and during which they have allegedly been the victims of torture and of abusive treatment, has aroused concern in the international community.

On October 15 in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a press conference was organized to denounce Abeid's arbitrary on these terms:

Pourtant député, Biram Dah Abeid endure la réclusion, sans procès, au prétexte d’avoir diffamé, voire menacé un journaliste, auteur d’un reportage tendancieux sur lra. Le détenu accuse l’homme de média d’avoir commis un travail de propagande, de diffamation et de dénigrement au bénéfice de la police politique. Le juge d’instruction maintient l’incarcération préventive, le temps d’épuiser ses jours de vacances.

Face au lourd passif de racisme et de correction impunie contre les noirs de Mauritanie, notamment les descendants d’esclaves, un réseau international de solidarité s’organise et ramifie, pour obtenir la libération d’un élu du peuple et la réhabilitation dans ses droits.

Despite being an elected official, Biram Dah Abeid endures imprisonment without trial, allegedly for having slandered, and indeed threatened, a journalist who wrote of a prejudicial report on the IRA. The imprisoned accuses the member of the media of having produced a work of propaganda, of defamation and of denigration for the benefit of the political police. The investigating judge keeps him in preventative custody, so as to use up his vacation days.

Faced with the dark legacy of racism and unpunished abuse of blacks in Mauritania, notably the descendants of slaves, a growing international network of solidarity has come together to obtain the release of an elected official of the people and the reinstatement of his rights.

Analyst Thiam Mamadou writes:

Les attaques ciblées des appareils judiciaire et policier contre la famille Biram Dah Abeid se veulent messages de fermeté, pour faire renoncer le public militant d’IRA à sa témérité et à son engagement. Lors d’une conférence de presse tenue à son domicile, au lendemain de la violente charge dont elle a été victime, madame Leïla mint Ahmed explique ainsi que les policiers l’ont personnellement visée. « C’est comme s’ils n’attendaient que moi, avec des ordres précis. Dès qu’ils m’ont reconnue, ils se sont jetés sur moi, à coups de matraques et de godasses. Je souffre de tout mon corps et n’eût été la pudeur, je vous aurais montré les ecchymoses qui le tapissent »

The targeted attacks from judicial officials and police against Biram Dah Abeid's family are meant to send a message, to make the public IRA activist renounce his determination and commitment. At a press conference held in their home the day after a violent attack in which she was the victim, Mrs. Leïla Mint Ahmed said that the police have personally targeted her as well. ‘It was as if they were waiting for me, with direct orders. As soon as they recognized me, they threw themselves at me, striking me with clubs and boots’.

Laws against slavery do exist in Mauritania. It simply a question of enforcing them — a matter of political will.

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