A group of United Nations human rights experts* today expressed serious concern that Mauritanian activists jailed for their alleged role in a protest against forced evictions in Nouakchott are being targeted by the Government for their anti-slavery advocacy.
The human rights defenders were sentenced in August to prison terms ranging from three to fifteen years. The date for an appeal will be set later this week by the Appeals Court in Nouadhibou.
Thirteen of the activists are members of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), the leading Mauritanian civil society organization fighting against slavery. They denied any role in the eviction protests, during which several people, including police officers, were injured.
“The Mauritanian Government is hostile to civil society groups that criticise its policies, and is especially hostile to groups like IRA, whose members are drawn from the Haratine minority and advocate for an end to slavery,” the experts said recalling that the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, visited Mauritania in May and met with IRA members.
“The conviction of the activists fits a pattern of crackdown on dissent by the ruling party in a country in which one ethnic minority dominates the two other major ethnic groups,” the experts noted. “We are concerned that the IRA has also been targeted by the Government as a reprisal because its members met with the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights during his country visit.”
The August trial was reportedly marred by due process and other serious human rights violations. There were credible indications that IRA members were tortured while in detention, family members and supporters of the accused were attacked by the police when they tried to attend the trial and there were procedural irregularities in the court proceedings.
“We have received information which indicates that the whole process failed to uphold the most fundamental fair trial and due process guarantees, including the right to have adequate access to a lawyer,” the human rights experts said.
Procedural irregularities seem to have persisted over the appeal phase. The appeal procedure was recently transferred from the Appeals Court in Nouakchott to the Appeals Court in Nouadhibou, about 500 kilometres from the capital. The jailed IRA members were transferred on 28 September from Nouakchott to a detention center in Zouérate, about 700 kilometres from Nouakchott and seventeen hours by car from Nouadhibou.
“There seems to be no legal basis or justification for the transfer of the detainees,” they underlined. “This is yet another indication that these legal proceedings are politically motivated and intended to suffocate groups and individuals that promote human rights and oppose Government policies.”
“We urge the authorities to ensure that the activists be transferred back to Nouakchott and afforded a fair hearing by a competent, independent and impartial court in accordance with international human rights law,” the experts stated.
They also expressed concern about the serious health condition of some detainees, reminding Mauritania’s obligation to protect detainees’ right to health and provide them with the urgent and adequate medical care needed regardless of their legal status.
“It is vital to ensure that human rights defenders can exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms free from intimidation or fear of reprisals. Anti-slavery activism cannot be a crime,” the experts stressed. “The Government of Mauritania needs to revisit its criminal law in order to comply with its international obligation to respect and protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
The UN independent experts have been in contact with the Mauritanian government to clarify this situation.
(*) The experts: Mr. Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; Mr. Sètondji Roland Adjovi, Chairperson of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Mr. Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Mr. Dainius Pūras, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Ms. Mónica Pinto, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; Mr. Juan E. Méndez, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and Mr. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.