Biram Dah Abeid was woken with a shock at 5.30am by police, who took him to a squalid, windowless prison cell at the station. But he wasn’t surprised. The day of his arrest last month was also the electoral commission’s deadline for candidates to register in the national elections, held on 1 September.

There is no political advantage to taking on the mantle of anti-slavery activism in Mauritania. Abeid, president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), can confirm that, to his cost. Since announcing his intention to run for political office to take his anti-slavery agenda to the top, Abeid and his colleagues have endured ongoing persecution.

Just last month the anti-slavery community was celebrating the release of two activists and IRA board members, Moussa Bilal Biram and Abdellahi Matalla Saleck, from a remote Saharan prison where they had been held for two years.

The celebrations were short lived. It’s a familiar cycle.

Their arrest, in June 2016, came a month after Abeid himself was released from his last stint in prison in May 2016. A broad coalition of individuals and organisations came together to expose the injustice of his detention. Over 370,000 signed a petition hosted on Freedom United and calls were made around the world seeking his release. Eventually the supreme court ruled in favour of his second appeal and reduced the original charge to a minor offence that carried a maximum jail term of one year, which he had served almost twice over.

Since Abeid’s release in 2016, or rather during his two years of freedom, he’s added a couple more awards to his collection for his anti-slavery activism, including being made a Trafficking in Persons Hero by the US State Department. While in Washington DC, receiving the award, the Mauritanian authorities rounded up several of his IRA colleagues with accusations of taking part in an organised protest and charged them with incitement of riots and violent rebellion against the government.


Biram Dah Abeid has been a long time campaigner against slavery

Slowly the activists were released until just two, Moussa Bilal Biram and Abdellahi Matalla Saleck, remained in prison. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that the detention of these activists was in violation of international law.

Despite his high profile, there is no reason to believe Abeid will fare any better in his treatment. It took a call from the chair of the Mauritanian Bar Association to get Abeid a small mat and a mosquito net in the dilapidated, dirty prison cell. On 13 August he was moved to Nouakchott’s central prison on remand for charges of attempted assault and the threat of the use of violence. Abeid disputes the claims, which critics have argued are trumped up.

Abeid had only been back in the country a matter of days, having returned from the US where he had participated in a Congressional Briefing on the issue of slavery in the Sahel. And Abeid knows his subject well. A son of a slave, he is a Haratin, a minority group that faces discrimination to such an extent that half the country’s Haratin population live as slaves with descendants “inherited” by their owners.