Washington, DC – Freedom Now is pleased to announce the release of Abdellahi Matalla Saleck and Moussa Bilal Biram, anti-slavery activists in Mauritania. Saleck and Biram were released on July 12, 2018 after serving a two year prison sentence. The two men were part of a group of 13 activists initially arrested in June 2016 and sentenced to serve between three and 15 years in prison for their involvement in anti-government protests. Ten of the activists were released in November 2016 and another in December 2016.
“The Mauritanian government’s harassment and imprisonment of anti-slavery activists is a grave injustice,” said Freedom Now Legal Director Kate Barth. “We are greatly relieved that Abdellahi Matalla Saleck and Moussa Bilal Biram will be reunited with their families. However, they should have never been arrested. We urge the government to investigate claims of torture against all the activists who were imprisoned and ensure they will not face additional persecution.”
Thirteen members of the organization Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) were arrested between June 29 and July 3, 2016. The arrests came in the wake of the government’s forced relocation of members of the Haratine ethnic group from an informal settlement in the capital city of Nouakchott. The forced relocation was met with protests, eliciting a violent response by security forces and ensuing riots in which both protesters and police were injured.
The government initially blamed IRA for the violence. As a result, the group organized peaceful gatherings and press conferences to protest the forcible relocations, police violence, and the arbitrary detentions of the demonstrators. Between June 29 and July 3, 13 IRA leaders were detained. This crackdown on the IRA occurred the very week that IRA president Biram Dah Abeid and vice-president Brahim Ramdane were in Washington, DC, being awarded the Trafficking in Persons Report Hero Award by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
All of the IRA members who were arrested had initially been disappeared; neither their lawyers nor their family members were able to obtain any information about their whereabouts for several days. On July 12, 2016, the detainees were brought to the court in Nouakchott. The detainees were charged with “unlawful armed assembly”, incitement to armed assembly”, “violence against police”, “violent rebellion against a government authority”, and “membership in an unregistered organization.” The court ordered the individuals to be kept in pre-trial detention in Mauritania’s notorious Dar Na-im prison. At least one of the detained IRA members displayed signs of severe torture in the courtroom–his wrists and feet were bruised and he was reportedly urinating blood—and others reported torture and abuse while they were held incommunicado. Nonetheless, the prosecutor in Nouakchott refused to investigate the individuals’ allegations of torture. On August 18, 2016, the 13 activists were convicted, receiving sentences ranging from three to 15 years. On November 18, 2016, an appeals court acquitted three activists and released seven more after reducing their sentences. An eleventh activist was released after his sentence expired in December 2016.
In November 2017, Freedom Now joined 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, Society for Threatened Peoples, and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization to petition Mauritania’s Minister of Justice directly for the release of Biram and Saleck. To date, more than 32,000 people have signed the petition.
In January 2018, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion, prompted by a petition filed by Freedom Now, which found the detention of the activists violated international law. In its opinion, the Working Group found that Mauritania had committed numerous violations of international law in arresting and detaining the activists, including the denial of their rights to a fair trial, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of expression. In addition to affirming the right of Biram and Saleck to be released, the Working Group stated that the activists should be compensated.