Authorities in Mauritania must drop all charges and immediately and unconditionally release 13 anti-slavery activists arbitrarily detained in an attempt to intimidate and silence human rights defenders, Amnesty International and 16 other civil society organisations said today.
The activists will appear before a court on 3 August in the capital Nouakchott accused of rebellion, use of violence, attack against public authority, armed assembly and membership of an unrecognised organization. If convicted, they face a fine and a jail term of up to two years.
“These activists are prisoners of conscience who have been falsely accused and are behind bars in order to impede their legitimate work. They have been targeted persistently for their views and must be released immediately and unconditionally,” said Kiné Fatim Diop Amnesty International West Africa Campaigner.
“The long-time persecution has no legal justification. The authorities must end their rule of fear and repression on anti-slavery activists.”
The 13 anti-slavery activists are members of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), a non-governmental human rights organisation that campaigns against slavery in Mauritania.
They were arrested between 30 June and 9 July after a protest by the members of a Nouakchott slum community that was being threatened with relocation as the city prepared for an Arab League Summit.
None of the 13 activists had organized the protest or taken part in it. Since being charged, they have been allowed to contact their lawyers and families on only one occasion.
“There is no justification whatsoever for denying these activists access to their families and lawyers. Every person deprived of their liberty has a right to the assistance of a lawyer and to communicate with and receive visits from their family,” said Mamadou Sarr President of Mauritania Human rights organisations forum (FONADH, Forum des organisations nationales des droits de l’homme en Mauritanie).
Two other anti-slavery activists were arrested between 20 and 21 July and held incommunicado until 26 July, before being released without charge.
According to information received by Amnesty, they were detained solely because the authorities feared the IRA would cause a disturbance at the Arab League Summit, held on 25 July.
Amnesty International and the other signatory organisations urge the authorities to put an end to the intensifying crackdown on anti-slavery activists and ensure that human rights defenders are able to work in a safe and enabling environment. Mauritania has recently adopted a law defining slavery as a crime against humanity.
Human rights defenders and civil society organisations campaigning against slavery have often faced undue restrictions from the authorities to exercise their rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Mauritania is a state party, protects the rights to freedom of expression and association.
Slavery in Mauritania was officially abolished in 1981 and has been recognized as a crime in domestic law since 2007. However, the practice persists, and IRA-Mauritania and other organisations, including SOS-Esclaves, have been documenting and denouncing cases of slavery. The Mauritanian authorities often unduly restrict the rights to freedom of expression and association of human rights defenders, activists and organisations that campaign against slavery.
In January 2015, a court in the southern town of Rosso sentenced two members of IRA, Brahim Bilal Ramdane and Biram Dah Abeid, also a former presidential candidate, to two years in prison for membership of an unrecognised organisation, participation in an unauthorized assembly and assault on security officers. Their sentences were upheld by an appeal court in August 2015. The high court ordered their release on 17 May 2016 after 18 months in jail.
The 13 activists in the latest case include the IRA spokesperson, Hamady Lehbouss, and the vice-president, Amadou Tidjane Diop. According to his family, Diop suffers from a heart disease for which he has been denied adequate medical treatment in detention.
List of signatories
1. Action des Chrétiens pour l’Abolition de la Torture ;
2. Africtivistes ;
3. Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l’Homme (France) ;
4. Amnesty International ;
5. Article 19 Afrique de l’Ouest
6. Anti Slavery International ;
7. Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille (Mauritanie) ;
8. Association mauritanienne des droits de l’Homme (Mauritanie) ;
9. Collectif Touche pas à ma nationalité (Mauritanie) ;
10. Comité de Solidarité avec les Victimes des Violations des Droits Humains (Mauritanie) ;
11. Forum des Organisations Nationales des Droits de l’Homme en Mauritanie (Mauritanie) ;
12. Groupe d’études et de recherches sur la démocratie et le développement économique et social (GRDS) ;
13. Initiative de la Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste (Mauritanie) ; Initiative de la Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste, IRA (USA) ;
14. Kawtal Ngam Yellitaré (Mauritanie) ;
15. Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (RADDHO) ;
16. SOS Esclaves (Mauritanie) ;