Biram Dah Abeid, dubbed as the Nelson Mandela of Mauritania, may die in prison. The leader of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) has been locked up for nearly a year in Aleg prison, the notorious Guantanamo of West Africa, and his health is deteriorating rapidly.
“Biram Abeid has diabetes, a herniated disc and hypertension,” according to the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. “He complains of severe abdominal pain, dizziness, difficulty moving and serious sleep disorders.”
Abeid has long been a thorn for the government of Mauritania, where de facto slavery of a dark-skinned minority continues.
In 2012, Abeid finished a jail sentence for publicly setting fire to pages of the Koran that have been used to indoctrinate slaves to be proud of their condition. Today he is serving a two-year sentence for taking part in an unauthorized demonstration, according to the official judgment. His supporters say the real reason he’s in jail is for challenging President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in the last election.
“We are very concerned about the situation,” says Ivana Dama, an IRA spokesman in Italy. “For a few months, the Mauritanian authorities have been denying Biram access to medical care and have inexplicably limited prison visits. The only person permitted to come, only two times a week, is his wife. She is also the only one bringing him proper food.”
Abeid won 9 percent of the vote in the June 21, 2014, contest, largely from the Haratin ethnic group.
An estimated 700,000 Haratin are still living in slave-like employment of Beydanes, also called Arab Berbers or “White Moors,” even though slavery was formally abolished in 1981.
A few months after the vote, Abeid was arrested on Nov. 11 as he followed a caravan of protesters organized in Rosso, on the border with Senegal. In December came the predictable judgment. Abeid, his right arm Bilal Ould Brahim Ramdane and Djiby Sow, a leader of another abolitionist NGO, the Kawtal ngam Yellitaare, were convicted of unauthorized demonstrations and membership in an unrecognized organization. Abeid and Ramdane lost their appeals on Aug. 20.
But the government hasn’t stopped its harassment and threats. On July 18, the activist Yacoub Diarra, the husband of Dama and a representative with IRA Italy, was taken by police in the middle of the night, dragged to Dar-Naïm police station and released. He had returned to Mauritania to celebrate the end of Ramadan and to visit Abeid.
“Today Biram needs urgent care,” Dama said. “We call on politicians and institutions to intervene. We don’t want yet another posthumous hero.”