- A Mauritanian journalist who was detained earlier this month for interviewing a runaway slave has now been charged with "damaging the public image" of Mauritania. The journalist has been sent to prison while he awaits his case to be brought before the courts.
Freelance journalist Mohamed Lemine Ould Mahmoudi and two of his assistants were picked up by local police on 13 March after investigating a case of domestic slavery in Mederdra, south-western Mauritania. Slavery is still commonplace in Mauritania, according to evidence provided by local human rights groups, but this is categorically denied by authorities in the capital, Nouakchott.
According to information received by the French press freedom group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF), Mr Mahmoudi appeared before an investigating judge on 16 March. He was sent to a prison in Rosso, southern Mauritania, after being charged with "damaging the diplomatic and economic image" of Mauritania and "producing documents inclined to disturb public order".
Two women arrested with Mr Mahmoudi, Aïchetou Mint El Hadar and Moya Mint Boyah, were also charged with the same offences. They have been sent to the women's prison in Nouakchott, according to RSF. "Their lawyers have not yet been allowed to access their files," the Paris-based group added.
When first detained, Mr Mahmoudi had been transcribing the story of Jabhallah Mint Mohamed, a young woman employed by wealthy "masters" to tend to their herd of sheep and goats. The woman had received neither salary nor compensation of any form for her services and had been ill-treated by her employers.
According to the banned Mauritanian organisation SOS Slaves, Ms Mohamed finally fled the estate on which she had served all her life in early March this year. The estate is located in the town of Abokak, approximately 20 kilometres from Mederdra.
Ms Mohamed is herself the daughter of slaves, illiterate and the mother of two children. After bringing her complaint to the local police, she was escorted back to her "masters" before finally being set up in a neighbouring town with her husband and children, SOS Slaves claims.
Mauritanian authorities are sensitive to reporting about slavery and insist that the practice, outlawed in 1981, no longer exists in the country. Human rights groups however repeatedly have presented evidence that the practice still is widespread.
Local and international press freedom groups have protested the arrest of Mr Mahmoudi. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and RSF earlier called for his immediate and unconditional release. Upon receiving the notice of the official charges made against the journalist, RSF yesterday expressed "indignation" over his indictment and imprisonment.
- When a journalist seeks to obtain an individual's story, he is committing neither a crime nor an offence, he is merely doing his job, the group said in a statement. "Once again, as this case begins to take on disturbing dimensions, we call for [Mahmoudi's] immediate release and the closure of this file. It is Mohamed Lemine Ould Mahmoudi's persecution which damages Mauritania's public image, not his reporting," RSF said.
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