2012 has seen a major effort to thrust the issue of slavery forward and into the face of those who perpetrate it. The Initiative for the resurgence of the abolitionist movement in Mauritania (IRA-Mauritania) recently challenged one of the major systems that keeps the practice alive in the country. They recently challenged the role of Islam with certain religious writings from the Law School of the Maliki school (one of the four legal schools of practice in Mauritania Sunni Islam), in which slavery is justified. In the controversial writings it is explicitly legitimised, that children of slaves are not considered „free“ to the world, and keep the slave status. Even if the mother is released, her child is still born a slave.
IRA president Biram Dah Abeid, a distinguished anti-slavery activist in Mauritania and widely respected for his important work in highlighting the continued existence of slavery in the country, lead a vigil with the burning of these books. These actions have caused great controversy in the Islamic world, but has also brought the issue to the fore and is being discussed.
Though for these actions Biram Dah Abeid was arrested on April 28 – along with eleven other IRA members, also arrested on that day. What the Mauritanian authorities are accusing IRA of is that — during the vigil on April 27, 2012, regarding Islam and its influence on the question of slavery — they had allegedly burnt religious writings.
On 2 May 2012, Biram Dah Abeid and the IRA supporters and members arrested were brought before a magistrate who subsequently charged them with “threatening state security”. If Biram Dah Abeid is to be found guilty, he faces a sentence of capital punishment or life imprisonment with forced labour. All defendants were not allowed access to their lawyers or family for the first few weeks of imprisonment.
Biram Abeid and his 6 co-defendants were finally presented before the Court on Wednesday 27 June in Nouakchott. In the words of the UNPO “from the very beginning of the trial, the defence lawyers raised procedural objections, as the procedure followed by the prosecution violated Article 71 of the Code of Procedure, according to which the “flagrantedelicto” procedure is incompatible with charges carrying the death penalty, and requires additional investigation. The judges received the lawyers opposing argument, and as a result rejected the prosecution´s request and returned the case to the prosecutor.
On 28 June, the seven detainees appeared again before the prosecutor, who sent them to the Terrorism Chamber on the very same charges that were rejected the day before. Consequently, the judge refused to write a new detention order, keeping the seven co-defendants detained under the old warrant.
Having been already invalidated by the Criminal Court the previous day, Mr. Me Bah Ould Mbareck, one of the defense lawyers, reacted saying: «We consider that Biram and the others are now arbitrarily detained, they should be released». The statement was made while the defense lawyers protested outside the prosecutor’s office, who promised to receive them within the next 24 hours.”
The action undertaken- the vigil, has raise awareness of the issues and has been controversially discussed within Mauritanian society, in both politics and media. This has started off a debate about the influence of the Islam on slavery, which was never before discussed in public as the subject was considered to be off-limits.
Due to Birams persistence, in recent years, Muslim clerics have repeatedly and publicly demanded Biram Dah Abeid to be silenced for allegedly questioning the religious order. Which is now not such a difficult task when Biram Dah Abeid, currently imprisoned in Mauritania. Prison puts Biram in serious danger, it is reported that threats from other inmates, reportedly linked with Al-Qaeda and other islamic groups, angered by Birams recent anti-slavery protest, have been made on his life.
The standards of the prison system are worse than poor and overcrowding exists and thus it is that such a prison system makes it extremely possible for mentioned threats to be carried out. Biram is currently being held in Dar Naim Prison, Nouakchott.
As Biram is a prominent voice on anti-slavery and the inaction of the government to combat it, he poses a threat to the creditability and transparency of the government. Birams actions also expose the government to the international community by presenting their inefficiencies, failings and lack of will to abolish slavery and disfranchisement despite being signatory to international agreements to do so.
Biram has been harassed and arrested repeatedly by the government for his efforts. The intentions of President Aziz are evident, as he presented himself as the chief judge in this case immediately after the activist was arrested and had announced a serious punishment for the „perpetrator“.
President Aziz and the Mauritanian government may make use of back lash and anger in response to the burnings as a chance to permanently silence and lock up the human rights activist.
There is bias and abuse of human rights in Mauritania.
Human rights activists are arrested and threatened for the efforts. STP fear for the safety of Biram. STP also recognise that if the threats to Birams life are actualised while he is in the prison system it plays to the governments intentions and all but removes responsibility or blame from the government. It also extinguishes a powerful and established voice in opposition to the inaction of the government and the continuation of slavery for hundreds of thousands of people.
The result of such a threat may also incite a dramatic response from supporters and Haratins further adding to instability in the region. In a recent peaceful protest for the release of Biram protestors were met with force. Riot police and the National Guard wounded 4 protesters and arrested 5 others.
STP require that pressure must be exerted on the Mauritanian Government and President Aziz to ensure the safety and ultimately the release of Biram Dah Abeid and other members. It should be reminded to the government by the international community that the Mauritanian government is accountable for the safety of prisoners while in remand and that if harm should come to the prisoner the government is held responsible.
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Key Word: Haratin
Foerderverein Fuer bedrohte Voelker