Petition to free Mauritanian anti-slavery activist gains momentum

A petition at online campaign site Avaaz, calling for the release of Mauritanian anti-slavery activist BIRAM DAH ABEID, has garnered almost a million signatures in the week since it was launched. Now Abeid, who was imprisoned in November, has written an open letter on slavery in his country, from his prison cell.

Mauritania opposition politician, presidential candidate, and anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid speaks with an AFP journalist during an interview, on the last day of the national presidential election campaign, in Nouackchott, on June 19, 2014. AFP PHOTO / SEYLLOU (Photo credit should read SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images)

In the letter, the activist calls for support from the international community to eradicate slavery and exploitation in his country.

Slavery was abolished in 1981, but legislation outlawing it in Mauritania was only enacted in 2007. Abeid writes that Mauritania has the worst slavery problem on earth and that 50% of the Mauritanian population is made up of slaves and former slaves. The Global Slavery Index estimates that over 155,000 of Mauritania’s citizens remain enslaved.

Abeid began an anti-slavery movement known as IRA-Mauritania in 2008, but his government does not recognise the organisation – instead, he and other activists have been imprisoned, harassed and tortured.

The Avaaz petition calls for his and others’ unconditional release, the abolition of slavery in all forms, for legal recognition to be given to anti-slavery organisations and for the repression of abolitionists to stop. The petition was launched last Thursday and had collected over 987, 000 signatures at last count.

Avaaz’s Bert Wander explains that the campaign is not waiting to reach the 1-million signature mark before they take action. They have been calling Mauritanian embassies worldwide to demand Dah Abeid’s release. The petition will be delivered to the European Parliament in Brussels. Wander says the organisation intends to put pressure on the European Union to review and suspend European Development Fund payments to Mauritania.

You can view the original petition on the Avaaz website.

Read the full text of the letter below.


Open letter from Biram Dah Abeid
Aleg Prison, 20 August 2015

My name is Biram Dah Abeid. I have devoted my life to the struggle against slavery, impunity and injustice. It’s a promise I made to my father, who married a slave and whose family was ripped apart because of slavery. Today, I am writing to you from the prison cell I am kept in for speaking out to end this cruel trade.

My country, Mauritania, has the worst slavery problem on earth – the Haratin, (a reference to slaves and former slaves), represent 50% of the Mauritanian population. Babies are born to masters and forced to serve them their whole lives.

In October 2008, I took the decision to create IRA-Mauritania (Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement Initiative), an independent, peaceful and non-violent organisation whose primary goal is to deliver our country from the scourge of slavery.

Despite support from the international community, and many sit-ins and protests on behalf of slaves and former slaves, our organization IRA-Mauritania is not recognized by the Government of Mauritania. Instead, our members have been harassed, tortured, tried, convicted and imprisoned, accused of belonging to an illegal organization. I have been behind bars since November, with my assistant Brahim Bilal. This is my third spell in jail for speaking out against slavery.

The government has passed laws that speak of punishing those involved in slavery, but in practice it has focused on stamping out our fight to end exploitation of slaves. My government wants to silence me, by demonizing me, harassing me, and imprisoning me, and hopes I will abandon this cause by being silent or leaving the country.

Yet I refuse to give in to their blackmail.

To end this suffering, we need more than words from the international community, we urgently need strong action. The leaders of the European Union, and the United States have strong ties with the Mauritanian government. From the darkness of my prison cell, I appeal to them to use all legal and diplomatic channels, including the suspension of financial aid, to push the government to stop the repression and take serious steps to eradicate slavery, and the racism and exclusion that underpins it.

I refuse to give up. I will not be silenced. I will not stop challenging the dogma which is used to legitimise slavery here. I refuse to give up on my country, and those whose lives are blighted by slavery. Today, I call on the world to support our struggle for freedom.

– Featured image via IRA-USA
– Additional image via SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty images