Voicing serious concern over recent intensified crackdown by the Mauritanian Government on the imprisoned anti-slavery activists, a group of United Nations human rights experts today urged the authorities to ensure a fair hearing and provide needed medical treatment for the detainees.
The human rights defenders were sentenced in August to prison terms ranging from three to 15 years. Thirteen of them are from the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), a leading Mauritanian civil society organization fighting against slavery.
“The Mauritanian Government is hostile to civil society groups that criticize 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 in a news release, recalling that the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, visited Mauritania in May and met with IRA members.
According to the experts, 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 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,” said the experts.
The special rapporteurs further pointed out that 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.
While the date for an appeal will be set later this week by the Appeals Court in Nouadhibou, its procedural irregularities seem to have persisted over the appeal phase.
The jailed IRA members were transferred on 28 September from the capital Nouakchott to a detention centre in Zouérate, about 700 kilometres away and 17 hours by car from Nouadhibou, according to the news release.
“There seems to be no legal basis or justification for the transfer of the detainees,” the experts underlined, adding that “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.”
Therefore, the experts urged 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.”
Moreover, the experts expressed concern about the serious health conditions of some detainees, reiterating Mauritania’s obligation to protect their 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.
Independent Experts and Special Rapporteurs, are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.