Boubacar Messaoud, a former slave who became one of the country’s most prominent anti-slavery campaigners, has lost track of how many times he has been arrested by the authorities for his activism – at least five or six, he says, including once when he was imprisoned for more than three months.
Jail is still used as a weapon against the anti-slavery movement. Mauritania’s most famous campaigner, Biram Dah Abeid, and one of his comrades, Brahim Bilal, are currently in the second year of a two-year prison sentence. They were arrested while leading a peaceful protest in a convoy of cars driving across a rural district. Another activist, Mr. Touré, has been arrested several times and once spent 40 days in prison.
Their organization, the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), is considered illegal, and the authorities have closed and padlocked its offices in Nouakchott, the capital city. Diagonal black lines have been painted across its walls to warn away anyone who seeks its help.
“We’re used to this pressure,” Mr. Touré shrugs. “It’s normal. We were a little scared in the past, but now we don’t care.”