UNPO welcomes the release of Abdellahi Matalla Saleck and Moussa Bilal Biram on Thursday 12 July 2018. Both were part of UNPO Member the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) Mauritania, which campaigns to raise awareness of the ongoing slavery of the Haratin ethnic minority in the country. UNPO urges the Mauritanian government to release other human rights activists currently imprisoned under false pretences, as well as investigate allegations of torture against prisoners.
Abdellahi Matalla Saleck and Moussa Bilal Biram were arrested together with 11 other activists in July 2016, all of whom were sentenced to serve between three and 15 years in prison for their involvement in protests against the Mauritanian government. The protests occurred as a result of the government’s forced relocation of an informal Haratin settlement in the capital city of Nouakchott. The Haratin are Mauritania’s largest ethnic minority at 1,350,000 and half of them are forcibly enslaved as well as suffering severe discrimination throughout the country. IRA Mauritania, a member of UNPO and the organisation Saleck and Biram belonged to, campaigns for the respect of their human rights and the de facto abolition of slavery in the country. The Mauritanian government blamed IRA when violence erupted at the protests, injuring both protesters and security forces.
Between 29 June and 3 July 2016, 13 IRA leaders – including Saleck and Biram – were detained as a result of the protests; IRA President Biram Dah Abeid and Vice-President Brahim Ramdane escaped the crackdown as they were abroad being were awarded the Trafficking in Persons Report Hero Award at the time. The detainees were disappeared, with the relatives unaware of their location for days. They were brought before the court on 12 July 2018, where physical evidence suggested they had been tortured, a suspicion which the protestors later confirmed. They were also denied medical care, despite one of their number having a known heart condition and medical prescription – all of which the court prosecutor refused to investigate.
On 28 August 2016 the court charged the IRA members with « membership in an unregistered organization », “incitement to armed assembly », « unlawful armed assembly », « violence against police » and « violent rebellion against a government authority ». Three of the activists went on to be acquitted in an appeals court, while seven had their sentences reduced and were released. In December 2016 an 11th activist was released at the end of his sentence; yet Abdellahi Matalla Saleck and Moussa Bilal Biram remained incarcerated.
In November 2017 international pressure was applied on the Mauritanian government as NGOs and human rights groups including UNPO, Freedom Now, The Abolition Institute, Amnesty International, Anti-Slavery International, L’Association Des Femmes Chefs De Famille, Free the Slaves, Freedom United, Front Line Defenders, IRA-USA, International Trade Union Confederation, Minority Rights Group and The Society for Threatened Peoples signed a petition to Mauritania’s Minister of Justice for the activists’ release. In January 2018 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemned Saleck and Biram’s incarceration and accused the Mauritanian government of multiple human rights abuses such as the violating their freedoms of expression, assembly and association and denying their rights to a fair trial.
While the release of Abdellahi Matalla Saleck and Moussa Bilal Biram is a just cause for celebration, the Mauritanian government’s continued violence against IRA protestors highlights the enduring issues faced by anti-slavery and more generally human rights activists in the country. UNPO calls on the government to release other political prisoners incarcerated under false pretences, as well as launch an impartial investigation into the allegations of torture and mistreatment made by ex-prisoners.