But the fight against slavery has a face: that of the prominent activist Biram Dah Abeid. He is sometimes compared to Spartacus, the leader of the slave uprising against the Roman Republic, or to Malcolm X, but to many locals he is simply Biram, the man who goes on hunger strikes, frees slaves, and who once publicly burnt Islamic scriptures that he says justify slavery. In just a couple of years, Biram has split the country into two groups: those who love him and those who hate him.
I met Biram a year before my trip to Mauritania, in Brussels. Surrounded by three guards in a hotel room, he spoke slowly and thoughtfully, like a reverend. “I am always shocked when some Westerners try to tell me that slavery is part of our culture,” he told me. “They take a brutal crime, decriminalize it and turn it into a cultural phenomenon. There is no crime older than rape. Yet nobody will say it is a cultural thing.”
When Biram was eight years old, his father told him that his grandmother had been a slave. The revelation had a profound impact on him. “I promised my father that I was going to fight slavery and discrimination,” he told me. The young boy started to write pamphlets, which he handed out at school. Later, he went to study law in the capital Nouakchott and had an administrative job for 10 years until he was so frustrated with his superiors that he quit and became a full-time activist.
After being a member of the more diplomatic and state recognized anti-slavery organization SOS Esclaves for many years, he decided to create his own organization in 2008. The logo of L’Initiative pour la Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste (IRA) is a red clenched fist. The powers that be deserve a punch, and Biram intends to throw one at them.
“The state has been complicit in slavery, so it is not in their interest to fight it. That is why slavery continues to exist,” he told me in Brussels. The UN also holds Mauritania’s government responsible, as it has failed to implement legislation and seems unwilling to follow up on allegations of slavery. Most cases are closed without proper investigations.
A week in which two slave-owners were jailed and two leading anti-slavery activists were released from prison in Mauritania could mark a turning point in the West African nation's fight to eliminate the practice, campaigners said on Wednesday.
The two slave-owners – Sidi Mohamed Ould Hanana and Khalihina Ould Heymad – were also ordered to pay compensation to the two female slaves who had brought the case with the support of SOS Esclaves and Anti-Slavery International (ASI). The presiding judge of the Nema special court, which was set up in December, also imposed a fine of 100,000 ouguiya (about $285) and ordered 1m ouguiya in restitution to each of the women.
For only the second time in the country's history, a judge in Mauritania this week convicted two people on charges of slavery, according to anti-slavery activists and U.S. officials.
Dear friends of the Abolition Institute,
Yesterday has a truly historic day in the centuries-old struggle to end slavery in Mauritania.
World renown Mauritanian anti-slavery leaders Biram Abeid and Brahim Ramdhane, both of whom have travelled and spoken in Chicago as guests of the Abolition Institute, were released from prison by the Mauritanian Supreme Court. Read the statement on this momentous event by our U.S. Ambassador to Mauritania Larry Andre, a strong champion for human rights in the region.
Millions of activists across the globe sent e-mails to the Mauritanian government urging their release. Countless news outlets covered their plight. While Biram and Brahim were arrested and imprisoned for speaking out against slavery, their government had, at that time, never successfully prosecuted actual slaveholders.
I personally met with Biram and Brahim in their remote prison in Aleg, Mauritania last year. Their perseverance, optimism and commitment to the cause was truly inspiring. Even in these difficult circumstances, both Biram and Brahim expressed tremendous gratitude to the Abolition Institute and supporters like yourself who are fighting so hard for our shared cause. It has always been deeply meaningful to me that Biram’s last event before receiving the prestigious United Nations Human Rights Prize at the UN General Assembly in New York was to address student activists – the future of the movement – with us in Oak Park, Illinois.
The broader movement against slavery won a second huge victory yesterday as well. For the first time in Mauritania’s history, a special anti-slavery court convicted and sentenced slave-owners to prison and to pay meaningful restitution to women they had enslaved. The only previous conviction for the crime of slavery in Mauritania was in 2011, and the slave-owner never served prison time.
Eight more anti-slavery cases are now pending, and Judge Aliou Ba stated that the decision was meant to send a message to slaveholders that cases will now be vigorously prosecuted in the new courts.
Great credit is due to the lawyer for our partner organization, SOS Esclaves -- Maitre Mohameden Elid. As a Haratine (a group that has traditionally suffered from slavery and discrimination in Mauritania), it was deeply symbolic that Maitre Elid was the first lawyer to argue – and win – a case in the new Mauritanian slavery courts.
Special gratitude also goes to all the members of SOS Esclaves, including founder Boubacar Messaoud, who have struggled for decades against slavery in Mauritania. SOS Esclaves helped both victims escape, assisted them in supporting their families, and organized and filed the successful cases. Legal training and assistance was provided by Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organization and a great partner of ours based in London.
I’d like to close this note with a word about the two female victims, Fatimetou Mint Hamdi and Fatimetou Mint Zaydih. They are who this movement is all about. Fatimetou and Fatimata, both in their late 30s, had lived with the Ould Daoud family since birth as their slaves.
They took great risks and showed great courage, escaping with their children last year with help from local SOS Esclaves activists. Fatimetou attended the public trial and spoke compellingly about what she had suffered. Mauritanian slave masters often claim, when confronted, that their slaves are really just members of their family. When the masters were denying the charges, she began shouting out: ‘That’s not true, you know what we were to you!’ For the first time in history, a Mauritanian slavery court agreed and for that we are truly thankful.
The Abolition Institute
By Geoffrey York at the Globe and Mail:
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.”
The Honorable John F. Kerry
Secretary of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520
Dear Mr. Secretary:
We are deeply troubled by the August 20th court ruling in Mauritania upholding a two-year prison sentence for anti-slavery activists Biram dah Abeid (recipient of the 2013 UN Human Rights Prize), Brahim Bilal, and Djiby Sow. The Mauritanian government has demonstrated a complete disregard for rule of law and basic human rights by imprisoning human rights defenders for exercising their right to freedom of assembly and expression and by circumventing the judicial process for appeal.
When arrested in November 2014, the human rights organizations that Abeid, Bilal and Sow represent were leading a peaceful sensitization “caravan” along the Senegal River – as the biggest obstacle to the struggle against slavery in Mauritania is the lack of awareness about the problem. On January 15, 2015, the Mauritanian government sentenced Abeid, Bilal and Sow to two years imprisonment for inciting rebellion and membership in an ‘illegal’ organization. In an attempt to diffuse popular support for the prisoners and make it difficult for their family and lawyers to visit, within 24 hours of being sentenced, all three were arbitrarily moved to the remote location of Aleg. In light of these events, we urge you to publicly condemn this injustice; encourage the government of Mauritania to enforce its anti-slavery laws; and seriously reconsider Mauritania’s eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).
Freedom House has documented Mauritania’s deteriorating human rights record in its annual Freedom in the Worldreport. In 2009, Mauritania was downgraded from ‘Partly Free’ to ‘Not Free’ status, due to the military’s ouster of the democratically elected president. Under President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, political power is highly centralized in the hands of the executive and the scale of slavery has not diminished. According to the Global Slavery Index, Mauritania has the highest prevalence of modern slavery in the world at an estimated 4% of the population - although many local human rights organizations put the number close to 20%.
Abeid’s organization, the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), among others, have been instrumental in raising the issue of slavery to the forefront, exposing abuses and mobilizing Mauritanian citizens to demand basic rights. Since the November arrests, the organization’s resources have been funneled into legal proceedings and drawn away from their ultimate mission to eliminate slavery in Mauritania.
We urge the United States to publically condemn the decision by the appeal court in Aleg against Abeid, Bilal and Sow. The United States provides over $40 million in security assistance to Mauritania. This aid offers a significant amount of leverage to engage the Mauritanian government on issues of human rights. Also, as you made clear in your remarks at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism earlier this year, civil society groups and human rights defenders like Abeid, Bilal and Sow are essential in the struggle against violent extremism as they promote social and political inclusion, diminishing the appeal of extremist groups.
The United States should press the government of Mauritania to enforce its anti-slavery laws. We welcomed the enactment of tougher laws against slavery earlier this month, especially provisions which allow non-profit organizations to file complaints on the behalf of victims; however, the Mauritanian government’s commitment to implement these laws is in doubt. Since Mauritania criminalized slavery in 2007, the government has not provided adequate resources for the special tribunal dedicated to slavery prosecutions - as noted in the recent report issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery - and only one perpetrator has been brought to justice. Weakening local human rights organizations will make the enforcement of anti-slavery laws even less likely.
Finally, the United States should reconsider Mauritania’s AGOA eligibility on human rights grounds. During the upcoming AGOA eligibility review of Mauritania, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative should consult with Mauritanian human rights organizations regarding the restrictions on political rights and civil liberties as well as the trend lines in the incidence of slavery that exist in the country.
As one of Mauritania’s closest allies and key partner in the fight against terrorism, the United States is in a strong position to encourage President Aziz’s government to stop persecuting anti-slavery activists and live up to its own commitments to end slavery. These efforts would help make Mauritania more pluralistic and resilient and decrease terrorism and instability.
Mark P. Lagon
President, Freedom House
The Abolition Institute
Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture
Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l’Homme (AEDH)
Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille
Free the Slaves
Human Rights First
IRA – Mauritanie
IRA – USA
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organization (UNPO)
To the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery,
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
Draft legislation that threatens NGO freedom risks undermining the country’s new anti-slavery law, and the ability of NGOs to work with victims.
By Romanucci & Blandin at R&B Law:
he U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved $5 million in funding to address slavery in the West African nation of Mauritania, ranked by the Global Slavery Index as the nation with the highest percentage of its own people enslaved. This follows last year’s historic appropriation of $3 million for anti-slavery programs in the region.
It is estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of Mauritania’s 3.89 million citizens are enslaved and face horrific, inhumane conditions. A 2012 CNN special report, “Slavery’s Last Stronghold” shared the Mauritanian slaves’ plight with the world and spurred a group of activists to form The Abolition Institute.
The Chicago-based nonprofit is building on Illinois’ long history as a hub for anti-slavery movements and working with lawyers and human rights advocates to end the practice of slavery in Mauritania. Area Chicago attorneys, including Romanucci & Blandin partner Stephan Blandin, have volunteered their services to the Institute to aid in this effort.
“This grant and the Committee’s approval of $25 million for a new initiative to end modern slavery globally solidifies the message that policy makers are making a long term investment in addressing slavery in Mauritania and wherever this abhorrent situation exists,” said Blandin.