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Mauritania rocked in wake of anti-slavery trials

On 15 January 2015, three anti-slavery activists were sentenced to two years in prison rocking politically-fragile Mauritania
The President of Mauritania has been criticised by some activists following sentencing of anti-slavery campaigners (AFP)

In a courtroom in the south-western Mauritanian city of Rosso, one of the most eagerly awaited judgements in the north African country's post-colonial history was delivered on 15 January. "Guilty," the judge declared. Those in attendance erupted in shouts of condemnation. Three anti-slavery activists, including one 2013 UN Human Rights Prize Laureate and 2014 Presidential runner up, Biram Abeid, were each handed two-year prison sentences. Seven others were acquitted.

As described to MEE, this was a “trial of historic dimensions”. Anti-slavery activists being imprisoned in the 21st century – how has this sombre situation become a reality today?

“Not one Haratin is present among the members of the court that will judge me.”

The ten defendants – Messrs Biram Abeid, Brahim Ramdane, Djiby Sow, Khattri Rahel, Cheikh Vall, Abidine Matalla, Samba Diagana, Hassane Mahmoud, Mohammed Yacoub, Dah Boushab - were brought before the courts on 24 December on charges of “racism”, “working in an unauthorised organisation”, “violating public order”, “inciting violence” and “offending the authorities”. Defended by no less than 25 lawyers, this trial has brought the issue of slavery to the fore in Mauritania.

It pitted those claiming to have been enslaved – predominantly the Haratin ethnic group to which the activists mostly belong – against the alleged slavemasters, the Arabo-Berbers who dominate all positions of power in Mauritanian society and who deny the existence of contemporary slavery, contrary to international opinion.

This was crystallised by the statement in the final day of the proceedings from the former slave and subsequently convicted Brahim Ramdane: “I am a Haratin, and yet not one Haratin is present among the members of the court that will judge me.”

The trial was extended several times from its starting point of 24 December (itself postponed from 22 December) until its conclusion on 31 December. Some commentators suggested to MEE that this was to stymie international condemnation through Christmas celebration distractions.

Supporters of the defendants engaged in daily protests throughout the trial outside the Rosso courthouse. Notably, the military presence equalled that of the demonstrators nearly one to one.

There was a noted spike of invective against the defendants – especially Biram – and those who supported them, including in the form of a seminar demanding that the EU stay out of the internal affairs of Mauritania, a clear response to the European Parliament's earlier resolution criticising the trial and the persistence of slavery in Mauritania.

Between its conclusion and 15 January 2015, the defendants faced a long wait for the verdict. The defence's request for bail was not granted. Mauritanian judges are not required to give reason as to why and for how long they delay the verdict from the end of a trial.

One supporter of the anti-slavery activists told MEE that this was “certainly [so] the judge [can] be sure about what the president will dictate as punishment.”

Trial marred by allegations of political influence

There is no separation of the civil and religious courts in Mauritania; they are one of the same thing. Freedom House's 2014 Freedom in the World report also states that the “judicial system is heavily influenced by the government.”

Despite near-unanimous acceptance of slavery's illegality under Islamic law – as shown in a recent letter by 125 Islamic Jurists to Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi – Mauritania consistently fails to successfully convict slave masters.

With between 4 percent  (the most conservative of all estimates) and 20 percent (the highest) of 3.8 million people in slavery, Mauritania's judiciary has amassed a paltry, single conviction since slavery was criminalised in 2007. Biram and his colleagues were therefore seeking to improve the conviction rate through awareness-raising.

In 2012, Biram was sentenced to death by the courts for having destroyed, through burning, the Maliki Fiqh (religious texts) used to justify the practice of slavery in Mauritania. President Aziz vowed to apply the death penalty in this case, although Biram was later pardoned.

The action of burning the texts is permissible under Islamic Law under certain conditions of respect, such as removing all references of “Allah, His Angels and His Messengers”, according to the Quilliam Foundation's Islamic jurist Usama Hasan. As a religious man, Biram affirmed that he had done this.

Whilst some Islamic scholars may disapprove of the use of these texts to protest, Usama was steadfast in condemning the threat of the death penalty as “grotesque and over-the-top,” given that Islamic jurisprudence excuses those whose actions were benevolent in nature.

Anti-slavery activists identify this as evidence of the political interference from President Aziz into the porous judicial systems, given how easily the judiciary adhered both to Aziz's vow to hand out the death penalty, but also the ease with which he pardoned Biram following an uproar within the international community.

Sources also indicated that the gendarme arrested the defendants on the orders of the Wali (Governor) of Rosso, Isselmou Ould Sidi. Correct procedure permits the prosecutor to order an arrest, but in this case, the request came after their arrest. The police also changed the primary charge of "disturbing public order" following the arrest to attroupement, which carries a considerably larger sentence.

An online news site citing information from a well-informed source also claimed that President Aziz had met with two judges demanding that they expedite the court process.

Others have pointed to the death sentence handed down for “insulting Islam” to government critic and blogger Mohamed Mkhaitir as further evidence of political and judicial collusion.

The verdict's aftermath – Crying, shouting, anger

On 15 January 2015, the guilty verdict was reached for Biram Abeid, Brahim Ramdane and Djiby Sow. The other defendants were acquitted. According to IRA-Mauritanie representative Hamady Lehbouss, their morale remained strong as they had mentally prepared for this verdict, and remain confident that international pressure will ensure their release.

The two years handed down to the three anti-slavery activists is fewer than the five years sought by the prosecution - yet this far exceeds the 3-6 months anticipated by IRA-Mauritanie's Europe coordinator Abidine Merzough in a previous interview with MEE.

Needless to say, the response was emotional. One source informed MEE that there was much crying, shouting and anger upon the announcement of the verdict. Many present believed the verdict and the whole trial were politically motivated.

Local sources reported clashes between protestors and police, resulting in injuries as the police dispersed them with tear-gas and batons. The protestors also sought to prevent the van, in which the three defendants were travelling, from taking them away by laying on the ground.

The three defendants have since been transferred in secret to the largest prison in Mauritania, situated in the southern-centre of the country some 260km from Nouakchott in the sparsely-populated Aleg.

This is reportedly one of Mauritania's most notorious and dangerous prisons with frequent unrest due to the conditions of detention (e.g., being “brutally” woken in the night, inadequate healthcare, and denials thereof). Neither their families nor their colleagues were reportedly informed of this transfer.

Mariem Mint Cheikh, a female anti-slavery activist, is also languishing in prison without being charged. According to a 16 January 2015 press release by IRA-Mauritanie, she had been tortured for two days in Nouakchott's prison for women. She had partaken in the same Caravane protests as the defendants in this case.

The Mauritanian National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) declined to comment on the trial and verdict - affirming its independence from the executive - and several ambassadors of Mauritania were unavailable to comment at the time of writing.

Has Mauritanian society permanently changed?

The international community has yet to express an opinion to the verdict, having previously been vocal during the trial in unequivocally condemning the trials. Several non-governmental organisations following the case have already condemned the verdict. But it is unlikely that we will hear a response from the African Union, as President Aziz is its current chair.

Yet the most interesting thing for stakeholders is the reaction from within Mauritania itself. Among the 25 lawyers representing the defendants, the majority were Arabo-Berbers. The defendants' lawyers have confirmed that they will appeal, the trial of which will occur in Nouakchott.

Further encouragement can be taken from Mauritania Senator (and Arabo-Berber) Youssouf Sylla's vitriolic denunciation of the “political trial”: “We are going to continue to fight for the application of law. Because it is an empty trial, which has nothing to do with law.” Freedom House's West Africa programme officer Maïté Hosetter added: “In the long term, this will prove a pivotal moment for democratic development, the eradication of slavery and the development of unity within Mauritanian society. Mauritanians now agree the problem exists. Now more than ever, there must be dialogue.

Despite these positive signs, the mood remains sombre for those involved - anti-slavery activists have been imprisoned with prison terms far exceeding expectations, and their offices forcibly closed. None of this is likely to give succour to those anti-slavery activists currently imprisoned, nor those tens of thousands - predominantly Haratin women - living as slaves in the 21st century.

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the US. Rather than talking of a step towards the real eradication of slavery through upholding civil liberties on such a day, talk of anti-slavery activists languishing in prison dominates.

How will Mauritania, with a deeply entrenched history of authoritarian rule and coup d'états, survive this politically fragile moment? Time will tell.