Authorities in Mauritania have always denied the presence of slavery in their country but an article in Le Monde late last month by Christophe Châtelot proved otherwise.
Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, a prominent anti-slavery activist in this northwestern African nation, was imprisoned for “violating Mauritanian Islamic values” after an anti-slavery rally was held on April 29.
Abeid, who is president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of Abolitionism (IRA) in Mauritania, was arrested with 10 other people, some of whom were his relatives and other IRA leaders.
Although slavery was abolished in Mauritania in 1981 and outlawed in 2007, the practice still persists today.
Two days prior to his arrest, Abeid, a Muslim and a descendant of slaves himself, organized a gathering with a group of activists for a collective Muslim prayer outside the traditional places of worship where talking about slavery is taboo.
After the prayers, Abeid, in what would be seen as a provocative act, set fire to pages from books of the Maliki School of Islamic law, at a public square.
The ancient books which promote slavery also depict the servants’ rights vis-à-vis their masters. Most of these books are still studied today in Mauritania.
Although Abeid was careful not to burn pages mentioning God, the Quran, or Prophet Mohammed, he was arrested few hours later by a large number of elite forces.
Abeid’s act also sparked a wave of protests in the capital Nouakchott.
The Islamist National Rally for Reform and Development (Tawasul) issued a condemnation of his action in the days following his arrest.
The Party of the Union of Strength and Progress also made a statement on April 28, describing Abeid’s actions as “a monstrous act that affected the heart and conscience of the Mauritanian people.”
Mauritanian NGOs like Mauritanian Human Rights Watch, SOS Slaves, and the Mauritanian Human Rights League have asked for the detainees immediate release, saying “that they should stand a fair trial as soon as possible, according to international standards,” reported Le Monde.
However, the organizations have also denounced the book-burning and described it as “provocative and wrongfully advised.”
Following a month of custody, the prisoners were charged with “threatening state security.” Three of the 10 activists have been released but Abeid is still in jail, the French daily reported.
This is not the first time Abeid has been detained. In February 2011 he and five other IRA members were sent to jail for political activism but they were granted a pardon by the Mauritanian president.
However, this time the government may take stricter measures, perhaps in a bid to appease Islamist forces in the country.
“As Islamist groups are taking over in neighboring Mali, the Mauritanian government might try to please religious Mauritanians and Abeid would be the perfect scapegoat,” a human rights activist was quoted as saying.