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In Mauritania, The Fight To Abolish Slavery Runs Into Radical Islamism

In the northwestern African nation, anti-slavery activist Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid is accused of burning pages from a holy book that promoted slavery, prompting a call for his execution and a return to Sharia Law.

Child labor in Mauritania (UN/Jean Pierre Laffont)
Child labor in Mauritania (UN/Jean Pierre Laffont)
Christophe Châtelot

NOUAKCHOTT - Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, a prominent anti-slavery activist in this northwestern African nation, is sitting in jail. The president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of Abolitionism (IRA) in Mauritania was arrested on April 29 with ten other people – relatives, IRA leaders and ordinary activists -- accused of "violating Mauritanian Islamic values' after an anti-slavery demonstration.

Though denied by authorities, slavery is still a common practice in Mauritania. Amnesty International is asking for the release of these "prisoners of conscience."

On April 27, Biram, a descendant of slaves, gathered a group of activists for a collective Muslim prayer held outside, as slavery is a taboo subject in places of worship. It is a political act. After the prayers, he set fire to pages from books from the Maliki School of Islamic law, books that talk about servants' rights and masters' duties. These ancient books that promote slavery are still studied today.

Biram took great care not to burn the pages mentioning the Koran, Allah or Muhammad. But he was arrested a few hours later with great violence, thanks to an impressive number of elite forces.

Since then, Mauritanian NGOs like Mauritanian Human Rights Watch, SOS Slaves, and the Mauritanian Human Rights League, have denounced this book-burning as "provocative and ill advised." They nevertheless ask for the immediate release of Biram and his relatives "so that they can have a trial as soon as possible, according to international standards." After a month in custody, the prisoners were charged with threatening state security. Three of the ten activists -- but not Biram -- have been released.

For Amnesty International, freedom of speech includes "forms of expressions which can be considered as deeply shocking." And indeed Biram's autodafé shocked even his closest friends. "Biram is out of control; he is going too far and it harms the cause he defends," a close relative confides. "But it's not a reason to harass him."

In February 2011, the Mauritanian President pardoned Biram and five other IRA members after they were sent to prison for political activism. Some in Nouakchott worry that legal authorities could characterize the book-burning as a "terrorist act," and inflict severe punishment.

"As Islamist groups are taking over in neighboring Mali, the Mauritanian government might try to pander to religious Mauritanians. Biram would be the perfect scapegoat," says a Human Rights activist. The Mauritanian Human Rights action group concurs, wondering if "the hysterical crowd marching through the streets, screaming about blasphemy and asking for Biram's death" is spontaneous or not. The public television showed the book-burning images over and over, reporting on the "fury of the huge masses."

A delegation met with President Aziz to ask for a "doctrinal punishment against the IRA apostates." What worries Boubacar Messaoud, president of SOS Slaves, is that the President is promising to apply Sharia law in Mauritania although he has always been a regional leader in the fight against al-Qaeda. A number of NGOs are denouncing a "growing Talibanization of society." There are accounts of radical Islamism spreading in mosques of densely populated neighborhoods, where imams are getting the attention of unemployed youths.

The Mauritanian President, elected in the summer of 2010 after leading a coup d"état in 2009, is faced with a growing political opposition, who is asking for his resignation. In a regional context of crisis, the Mauritanian society is divided, caught between Black Africa (where the slaves hailed) and the Arab-Berber area (the Moors, who were the slaves' masters).

Slavery is a sensitive subject. "For the authorities, this problem vanished when slavery was abolished in 1981 and since its criminalization in the penal code, in 2007. We speak about it in the past tense, we tell the story of a grandmother who was a slave. Today slaves might not be controlled through violence, but they are all around us, guarding camels and cleaning up the streets, even though we deny it," denounces Boubacar Messaoud.

Opposition leader and National Assembly president Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, is founder of the Elhor movement which fought against slavery in the early 1980s. Though progress has been made in reducing slavery, Boulkheir concludes: "We need to stop denying or we'll never be rid of it."

Read the article in French in Le Monde.

Photo- UN/Jean-Pierre Laffont

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