To the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related Intolerance,
To the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders,
To the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association,
We, international organizations supporting the anti-slavery movement in Mauritania, are writing to call for concerted action from the UN human rights community after the conviction of three Mauritanian human rights activists was upheld on appeal on August 20, 2015. Biram Dah Abeid, Brahim Bilal Ramdhane (President and Vice-President of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement) and Djiby Sow (President of Kawtal) were initially convicted on January 15, 2015, after leading a peaceful campaign against slavery and for land reform in favour of disadvantaged groups in Mauritania. Their ‘crimes’ were “inciting rebellion”, “disobeying the orders of the authorities” and (for IRA) “belonging to an illegal organization”. Their conviction prompted a national and global outcry; one response was an Avaaz petition signed by nearly one million people from around the world.
Within two months the activists were transferred to an isolated unit of a prison in the remote town of Aleg, where their appeal was held. This move was in conflict with normal legal procedures according to which the imprisonment and appeal should have been held in Nouakchott, which led the activists to regard their detention in Aleg as ‘arbitrary’ and to boycott the appeal in protest.
We find it deeply disturbing that the Mauritanian authorities would choose to prosecute these innocent defenders of human rights, in flagrant violation of their rights to freedom of assembly and association, simply for their action against Mauritania’s deeply-rooted slavery system. Indeed, the Government should be actively engaged in this vital work, facilitating and supporting the role of civil society. It has instead chosen to target and punish civil society leaders, while slave-owners continue to enjoy total impunity. Mauritania’s array of measures to combat slavery, including a new anti-slavery law adopted just last week, has been revealed once again to be little more than a smokescreen to disguise the Government’s continued lack of action or will to end the practice.
The testimonies of people who have escaped slavery bear witness to systematic abuse, forced labour and the exercise of full ownership rights over them from birth. Yet despite an overwhelming body of evidence of the practice and at least 30 slavery cases before the courts, the Government continues to deny the existence of the slavery system, acknowledging only that the ‘legacy’ of the practice remains. A culture of denial and cover-up pervades Mauritania’s judicial system: the only slave-owner ever prosecuted for the crime (in 2011) was released on bail pending his appeal, which has never taken place. It is also deeply ironic that this slave-owner had received a prison sentence of just two years – the same sentence that the activists are now enduring for their work to combat slavery practices.
We call on you to recognise that no anti-slavery initiative from the Mauritanian government can be taken seriously as long as leaders in the anti-slavery movement continue to face this level of persecution for their work. We respectfully request that you make every effort to increase pressure on the Mauritanian authorities to cease its campaign against the activists and uphold their rights. We, the undersigned organisations, all actively supporting the anti-slavery movement in Mauritania, are at your disposal to provide any support or information to facilitate your efforts.
Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l'Homme
Minority Rights Group International
Society For Threatened Peoples International
Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization