Mauritanian Authorities Once Again Go After Anti-Slavery Activists

Mauritania, Africa (GVO) – Following June 29 clashes between angry residents and security forces during an operation to expel the inhabitants of a Ksar district slum, west of Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, several anti-slavery activists were arrested and their homes searched homes reportedly without a warrant.

The activists, who belong to the organization IRA-Mauritanie (the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolition Movement in Mauritania) had been at the evictions protesting against slavery and in support of reform allowing everyone to own land.

Mauritania was one of the last countries to officially abolish slavery, doing so in 1981, but the law isn’t enforced. An estimated 10% to 20% of the country’s 3.4 million people are enslaved. Mauritania is an Islamic republic, and distorted local interpretations of the religion are used to justify the continued existence of the practice — although the Mauritanian government denies that slavery exists and often blames the Western world or enemies of Islam when faced with allegations.

Image Source:

Image Source:

The country is located in Western Northern Africa and is right at the border between the Maghreb region and Sub-Saharan Africa. There is a long and complicated history between Mauritania’s ethnic groups; slaves mostly come from the black community.

The evictions took place ahead of the 27th Arab League Summit, which the northwest African country is hosting. A post on the “Mauritanie de Facebook” page provided the details:

According to the official version, decades ago, a plot of land belonging to a businessman was occupied by hundreds families from the Harratin community. This land was intended for a hotel resort. The project never took off, and in the end the owner broke up the vast holding across from the Bouamatou hospital into smaller plots which he sold off.

Not willing to present such a dreadful picture of Mauritania before a major Arab summit, authorities decided to clear out the resident families. An agreement would have been reached whereby the residents were to be moved to a neighboring area of Nouakchott in return for plots of land and a symbolic financial compensation.

Six million ouguiyas (about 16,700 US dollars) would have been handed over to representatives of the families. Only it seems that some of them were not aware of the deal and received no financial compensation or land. Another version states that all registered families received the same treatment.

When authorities moved in to evict the families, they encountered resistance. Posting on news site, K.Salif described what unfolded:

Considered to be an unjust provocation, residents refused to comply. The following confrontation with the cops was very tense. With respect to the sight of several severely bruised protesters, one wonders how and why in a so-called Muslim country, during the month of Ramadan focused on “Peace, Mercy and Solidarity,” such clashes happen between the state and certain poorer communities.  These events in the end benefited no one, in the least the primary person of the state, [President] Ould Abdel Aziz. Yesterday, we learned of the illegal arrest of Mr. Diop Amadou Tijane, one of IRA-Mauritanie’s vice presidents, and other activists.

Police claimed that the activists were arrested at the scene of the clashes, but IRA-Mauritanie issued a press release stating their workers were picked up at home after the fact:

Early in the morning of June 30, 2016, police agents arrested five IRA-Mauritanie activists at the home in their residences, contrary to the government’s theory which has them arrested at the scene of the event: Vice President Amadou Tidjane Diop; Abdellahi Matalla Saleck, head of IRA-Mauritanie in Sebkha (a suburb of Nouakchott); other activists Moussa Biram, Jemal Beylil, Khattri Rahel, who were arrested this morning, and Samba Fall, who was arrested later.  All six activists were taken to unknown destinations.

In addition to the IRA-Mauritanie activists, others known for their support of the victims of this kind of event were arrested, including the activist Mohamed Razgua, a IRA-Mauritanie supporter. But it is important to note that the different police stations in Nouakchott have been transformed into a detention centers for dozens of people… detained for several days without any contact with their families or lawyers.

Early in the morning of July 1, police arrested Balla Touré, IRA-Mauritanie secretary for external relations; the police arrested him at home also. His home, like Amadou Tidjane Diop’s, was raided, as well as the office of the NGO POP-DEV (Partners in Population and Development), and computers were taken away; and all these police actions were executed without any warrants delivered to the people arrested.

The “Page Mauritanie,” a Mauritanian community Facebook page dedicated to culture and politics and moderated by a group of activists, confirmed the organization’s account, denouncing the administration’s abuse of power:

Hamady, a Mauritanian blogger, also noted the flagrant contradiction in the Nouakchott-Ouest Wali’s [governor of the Western region of Nouakchott] televised statement which attested that the persons arrested were at the scene, as everyone knows they were gathered one by one from their homes. “Why didn’t the police arrest the people who were behind the violence in the place where it occurred?” Many in the movement find that the authorities’ gambit is so grotesque that they unveiled their intention by directly accusing IRA even before any investigation was being conducted to determine responsibility.

‘Many work without rest, without wages for their master’s benefit’

On the Mauritanian website, a writer called “Diko diko” published a post titled “Alert: IRA-Mauritania is again targeted by authorities” (Alerte : IRA-Mauritanie est encore ciblée par les autorités):

We’re calling all friends and partners to heed Diop Amadou Tidjane’s health status as he suffers from heart problems…

As “Diko diko” noted, it’s not the first time authorities have targeted IRA-Mauritania. Biram Dah Abeid, president of the organization and winner of several international awards, was released in May after 18 months of detention. For details read this Global Voices post, Activists Persecuted for Opposing Land-Grab-Driven Slavery in Mauritania.

In a recent interview with, Biram Dah Abeid revealed the sad reality of living in Mauritania with slavery still in practice:

At least 50% of Mauritanians suffer throughout their lives from psychological and symbolic effects of racial inferiority, which is what is at play here, as this relationship of ownership of one human over another results in a relative majority of Mauritanians being born slaves, they are attached to their masters’ family who have powers of life and death over them. Many work without rest, without wages for their master’s benefit. They do not have the right to education, to freedom of movement, to travel or marry, without their owner’s consent.

The master also has the droit du seigneur over all girl or women slaves. For example, a master who has 100 female slave girls can abuse them sexually, without restriction in number or age. He has the right, quote-unquote, that is to say, the Mauritanian law, the law enacted by the slavery code of the dominant Mauritanian community, the Arab-Berber. They call it the Islamic book, but we call it the slavery book, the anti-Islamic book. This is the literature of shame that I, personally, burned in public, in April 2012.

He continued:

Whether they be pledged, transferred or leased, an alleged “Islamic law” was conceived in service to this infamy, law which is still taught in our Islamic schools and universities till this day. The authors also authorize the castration of slaves. When a Hratin [person of an ethnicity historically enslaved in Mauritania] stood out with his beauty or other physical attractiveness, the Arab-Berber master could castrate him to avoid a mixture of blood, so as the master’s wives or daughters would not be tempted by sexual adventures that would lead to misalliance, or worse still source genealogical degradation.

In a publication dated July 4, 2016, Amnesty International called on Mauritanian authorities to disclose the place of detention as well as lawfully file charges against the activists or release them. At the time a total of nine activists had been arrested. Agence France Press later reported the number of people arrested and charged with assault against the police rose to 23.

While at home anti-slavery activists continue to be harassed, in the United States it’s a different story. The US recognized IRA-Mauritanie President Biram Dah Abeid and Vice President Brahim Bilal Ramdhane as “2016 Trafficking in Persons Report” heroes on June 30, 2016. The award was recently established to encourage people fighting against slavery and human trafficking in their countries.


This report written by Abdoulaye Bah and translated by Nadine Mondestin for Global Voices Online.