Protesters gathered in the Mauritanian capital on Sunday demanding the release of seven activists who have been detained since April, and end to the country’s practice of slavery, news organisations and activists reported.
Human rights and civil society activists who had gathered for a march in the capital Nouakchott demanded justice and freedom for the activists arrested in April – they also called for the abolition of slavery in their country- and an end to what they described as ‘arbitrary imprisonment.’
The seven activists detained included human rights advocate and head of the Initiative for the Resurgence of Abolitionist Movement (IRA), Biram Ould Abeid. According to the Irish-based human rights organisation, Front Line Defenders, Abeid and nine other activists were arrested on 29 April after reportedly burning books condoning the practice of slavery a day earlier.
Saidou Wane, an activist with The Movement for Justice and Equality in Mauritania (MJEM), a human rights organisation in Mauritania, told the Daily News Egypt that “the Arab Spring inspired a lot of activists in Mauritania and showed us everything is possible.”
The protests have been largely peaceful and have demanded reforms including an end to slavery which is still practised in the country. They also called for an end to government corruption. But peaceful protesters were met with violent crackdowns by security, Wane said.
Some news agencies reported the books to be Islamic texts. The United States-sponsored Magharabeia news site reported the books were Sunni Maliki books. Almost all Mauritanians follow the Sunni Maliki religious school of Islamic thought. MJEM said the books burned were Islamic books but not copies of the Holy Quran. Mauritania has been ruled by Islamic Shari’a law for decades, which bans the practice of burning religious texts.
The arrested remained in an unknown location for several weeks until they were sent to a prison on 29 May. Three of the activists were later released on the same day, Front Line Defenders reported. The organisation condemned the arrests and reiterated “its call on the Mauritanian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release and drop all charges against him and the other IRA members.”
In late June, the activists were tried for threatening the country’s security. The court dismissed the case for “incompetence and procedural nullity,” according to MJEM. Despite the ruling, the activists remained in custody.
The population of Mauritania is approximately 3.5 million, 10 percent to 20 percent of which are believed to be living some form of slavery, according to news agency CNN. The number of slaves could therefore be as high as 680,000. While the Mauritanian parliament passed a bill in 2007 making slavery illegal, news reports note that only one person has ever been successfully prosecuted.
The slaves are members of the black African ethnicity in the Arab League member country in which the Arabs or Moors always dominated. The struggle to end slavery in Mauritania started in the 1980s. The most recent attempts to end slavery have been sparked by the series of uprisings that shook the Arab World.
Mauritania witnessed massive protests on 25 February 2011 when demonstrators took to the streets demanding reforms. The protesters called themselves the 25 February movement. The movement is similarly calling for an end to military rule in Mauritania.