The Mauritanian anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid laughed when I asked him in an interview in December 2013, if he was concerned about his own safety. “I have been at risk for so long,” he told me, adding, that he believed the authorities in his country were likely trying to find a way to silence him “without shocking the international community or provoking a huge revolution.”
Today, Abeid and two other activists were sentenced to two years in prison for “membership in an unrecognized organization.” Their supporters were tear gassed by police after attempting to storm the courthouse following the verdict. Abeid’s case is particularly noteworthy at a time when the Charlie Hebdo attacks have focused attention on the tension between religious extremism and freedom of expression.
More than 29 million people live in some form of enforced servitude in the world today, but nowhere is slavery as prevalent or as widely accepted as in Mauritania. Most slave owners are Bidanes, the Arab-Berber minority that also dominates the country’s political system. Most slaves are members of the darker-sinned majority known as Haretin. Slave status is often passed down from generation to generation and estimates of the percentage of the country’s population living in slavery range from 4 to 20 percent.
Slavery was formally abolished in Mauritania is 1981—it was the last country in the world to do so—and criminalized in 2007, and the government still denies that it exists. But critics, including Abeid, say it persists thanks to centuries-old Islamic religious law texts, which in practice often supersede secular laws, and justify the owning of slaves, contradicting most interpretations of the Quran.
Abeid, a Haretin and the son of a freed slave, has been arrested multiple times for his actions with his group, Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, which have included conducting mass interventions to free slaves from households and using public pressure to force the police to arrest slaveowners. In 2012, he upped the ante by publicly burning the religious texts justifying slavery, which led to his imprisonment and fatwas calling for his death. In 2014, he attempted unsuccessfully to run for president in elections widely criticized as unfair.
Abeid has become an internationally known figure—in 2013, he won the United Nations Human Rights Prize, an award given in the past to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela—and his recent trial was criticized by the European parliament. Criticism from the United States of a government that has been a close ally in counterterrorism efforts in North Africa has been more muted.
Abeid’s latest conviction comes shortly after a separate case in which a Mauritanian court sentenced a blogger to death for a post criticizing the country’s caste system, which authorities said was insulting to the Prophet Mohammad.
Read the rest of Slate’s interview with Biram Dah Abeid here.