Washington D.C.: In response to a petition filed by Freedom Now, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion finding the detention of 10 anti-slavery activists by the Government of Mauritania to be in violation of international law. Although 8 of the activists were freed by an appeal court in late 2016, two still remain imprisoned. The Working Group—an independent panel of five human rights experts from around the world—called for the release of the two activists.

“We welcome the Working Group’s opinion,” said Freedom Now Legal Director Kate Barth. “The Mauritanian government’s continued harassment and imprisonment of anti-slavery activists is a grave injustice. We were greatly relieved that of the 10 activists arrested, 8 were freed more than a year ago, but we continued to be concerned that two of their colleagues remain imprisoned in violation of their freedom of assembly and association. Freedom Now calls on the Mauritanian government to respect the Working Group’s opinion and immediately and unconditionally release Moussa Biram and Abdellahi Matalla Saleck.”

On June 29, 2016, Mauritanian security forces in the capital city of Nouakchott stormed dwellings in the poor informal settlement of Ksar which had been occupied for decades by members of the Haratin ethnic group, many of whom were former slaves. With the Arab League’s Arab Summit, to be held in Nouakchott at the end of July, the Mauritanian government wanted to transfer these impoverished Haratins to a less visible area of the city. However, the forced relocation was opposed by the community’s inhabitants, who began to protest the police’s actions. The police forces reacted with violence and in the ensuing riots both protesters and police were injured. The police arrested about 42 protesters, including both inhabitants and activists who had come to support the inhabitants in their refusal to be forcibly evicted and illegally relocated.

The government initially blamed Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) for the violence. The group organized peaceful gatherings and press conferences to protest the forcible relocations, police violence, and the arbitrary detentions of the demonstrators. A further round of warrantless arrests and police brutality ensued as Mauritanian security forces hunted down members of the IRA leadership, taking them from their homes or pulling them out of their cars. Between June 29 and July 3, four IRA members were hospitalized and 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 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, which was particularly alarming considering concerns that some of the detainees had been badly injured during their arrest. However, on July 12, 2016, 23 of the detainees—10 inhabitants of Ksar and the 13 IRA members—were brought to the court in Nouakchott. (The other 32 protestors who had been detained were released). The detainees were variously charged with unlawful armed assembly and incitement thereto, belonging to a banned group, violent rebellion against government authority, and aggression against security forces. The court ordered the individuals to be kept in pre-trial detention in Mauritania’s notorious Dar Na-im prison.

Although 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, the prosecutor refused to investigate the allegations of torture.

On August 18, 2016, the 13 activists were convicted, receiving sentences ranging from 3 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. However, two activists – Moussa Biram and Abdellahi Matalla Saleck – remain imprisoned to serve a sentence of two years.

In its opinion, the Working Group found that the Government of Mauritania had committed numerous violations of international law in arresting and detaining the 10 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 Mr. Biram and Mr. Saleck to be released, the Working Group stated that all 10 activists should be compensated.

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 Mr. Biram and Mr. Saleck. To date, nearly 25,000 people have signed the petition.