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Jailed Mauritanian anti-slavery activist to boycott court hearing

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A former slave who stood for the presidency of Mauritania is due back in court Thursday. Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, an award-winning activist, is appealing against a two-year prison sentence along with two colleagues. But the activists declared they would boycott the hearing into charges of rebellion and public disobedience in the town of Aleg.


“They can be shackled and bound and dragged to the court and then the court can continue its circus,” a spokesperson for their group, the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (Ira), Dr Mamadou Sy, said in a phone interview from the US where he lives. “We will not be part of that circus nor are we going to serve as its clowns.”

Abeid and other activists are willing to pay the price to further the cause of the Haratin, dark-skinned slaves or former slaves to the upper class, according to Sy.

“If that means that they are to remain behind bars for the rest of their sentence so be it,” Sy added. “We all think that the thousands of slaves and individuals that are discriminated against in Mauritania deserve that level of sacrifice.”

In an open-letter, Abeid has called on the United States and the European Union to suspend financial aid to Mauritania to eradicate slavery and racism.

Opposition activists have cast doubts on the court's impartiality.

“I don’t believe that he [Abeid] will get a fair trial,” said Abdel Khoudoss Abeidna, the head of Unad, an opposition party that is part of the National Front for Democracy and Unity. “Nobody gets a fair trial in Mauritania. Since the military junta took over there are no fair trials.”

Abeid’s case has attracted international attention. More than 965,000 people have signed an online petition calling for his release.

“Biram is a revolutionary,” noted exiled performer Sidi Brahim Mohamed (alias Izak Ice) of Ewlad Leblad, a hiphop group. “He fights for equality and development, against slavery.”

The case raises doubts about the government's will to implement the country’s tough new anti-slavery law, which doubles prison terms for offenders.

The new act, adopted earlier this month, is hailed as a sign the authorities are finally getting serious on cracking down on a practice that has repeatedly been banned in the past (in 1905, 1981 and 2007).

The extent of slavery in Mauritania is subject to debate. In 1994, rights watchdog Amnesty International reported that 90,000 Haratin were still living as "property" of their master. Last year the Australia-based Walk Free Movement estimated in its Global Slavery Index that there were 156,000 slaves or some four per cent of the population.

Abeid, who stood against incumbent president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in the 2014 election, has said the anti-slavery laws are merely a "smokescreen" to appease international criticism.

The new law, passed on 11 August, declares slavery a "crime against humanity".

"It is inarguably a significant advance, emanating from a clear political will" to eliminate slavery, said Cheikh Ahmed Ould Zehav, a former ambassador and a member of the ruling party told AFP.

Mauritania's president Aziz, in power since 2009, said in May that only the "last vestiges" of an old practice subsist in Mauritania – a claim that opposition politician Abeidna disputes.

“The majority of non-Black Africans, of non-Black Mauritanians, do not support, do not agree with slavery,” he said. “But slavery exists in some parts of Mauritania.”

Remarked Amnesty International researcher Alioune Tine:"One must recognise the willingness of authorities to end slavery. But there is resistance both from the masters and the Haratin [slaves] who don't know their rights."

The two other activists named in the case are Brahim Ould Bilal, Ira vice-president, and Djiby Sow, who has been hospitalised in Germany.
 

Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011