By Ryan Aliman
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa
NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania – Protesters gathered in the Mauritanian capital on Sunday demanding the release of seven anti-slavery activists who have been detained, the end of ‘arbitrary imprisonment’, and the end of slavery in Saharan nation.
Sources say the seven detained activists were arrested on April 29 after burning Islamic books purportedly providing a religious justification for the practice of slavery. The books were Sunni Maliki books. The Movement for Justice and Equality in Mauritania (EJEM) said the activists burned Islamic books but not copies of the Holy Quran.
The recent protests have been largely peaceful. However, the protesters were met with violent crackdowns by security forces, said Saidou Wane, an activist with the MJEM.
Wane told reporters that “the Arab Spring inspired a lot of activists in Mauritania and showed us everything is possible.”
The west African country is a conservative society historically ruled by the Moors. During their rule, the Moors enslaved the black African ethnic group known as the Haratine.
Today, an estimated 10% to 20% of Mauritania’s 3.4 million people are enslaved — in “real slavery,” according to the United Nations’ special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian.
Officially, Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, making it punishable by six years of imprisonment. But the practice still exists. It wasn’t until five years ago, in 2007, that Mauritania passed a law that criminalized the act of owning another person. So far, only one case has been successfully prosecuted.
Slave masters in Mauritania exercise full ownership over their slaves. They can send them away at will, and it is common for a master to give away a young slave as a wedding present.
Most slave families in Mauritania consist of dark-skinned people whose ancestors were captured by lighter-skinned Arab Berbers centuries ago. Slaves typically are not bought and sold — only given as gifts, and bound for life. Their children automatically become slaves as well.
Some slave owners who no longer need a slave’s help send the servants away to slave-only villages in the countryside. They check on them only occasionally or employ informants who make sure the slaves tend to the land and don’t leave it.
Despite the recent arrests, other anti-slavery activists remain undeterred. They continue to rally to end the practice and to bring the issue to the attention of the international community. At the 2012 Global Media Forum held in Bonn, Germany, Brahim Bilal Ebeid, the vice-president of the anti-slavery group, Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement told the forum that Mauritania needs all the help it can get and that there are times when even the media is no safe recourse for Mauritania’s slaves.
For further information, please see:
AfriqueJet – Mauritanian Opposition Accuses Pro-Government Radio of Encouraging Slavery – 19 July 2012
New Internationalist – Slavery Still Widespread in Mauritania – 16 July 2012
Daily News Egypt – Mauritanians Demand Abolition of Slavery – 10 July 2012
BBC News Africa – Mauritania Slave Activist Biram Ould Obeidi Charged – 31 May 2012
CNN – Slavery’s Last Stronghold – 11 March 2012