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(Tunis) – Mauritanian authorities have detained an activist since January 24, 2018, apparently over social media posts decrying discrimination, Human Rights Watch said today. The activist, Abdallahi Salem Ould Yali, used social media to urge the country’s Haratines, a group descended from slaves who comprise more than one-third of the population, to resist discrimination and demand their rights.

Abdallahi Salem Ould Yali © 2017 Private

Authorities have accused Yali under the penal code, the 2015 cybercrimes law, and the 2010 counterterrorism law of incitement to racial hatred and violence, his lawyers told Human Rights Watch. However, they noted that, two weeks after his arrest, his case file does not yet contain any copies or recordings of the offending posts or statements. The Mauritanian authorities should free him or promptly produce the evidence against him.

“If authorities have a case against Yali, they should show the proof that he went beyond demanding rights for a marginalized group and actually incited others to commit violence or cause other harm,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Using a counterterrorism law against someone who denounces discrimination should set off warning bells.”

Authorities held Yali incommunicado for a week. His family told Human Rights Watch that they did not know where authorities had taken him until February 1, when the police presented him to a panel of judges in the counterterrorism branch of the Nouakchott Court.

The judges ordered his release under judicial supervision, said his lawyers, Ahmed Ely Messoud and Bah Ould Mbarek. However, the prosecutor immediately appealed the release, and a judge ordered him held pending a ruling on the prosecutor’s appeal, a decision that his lawyers protested. Yali is in pretrial detention in Nouakchott Prison, where his family has visited him.

A Haratine, Yali has frequently posted poems he wrote about Haratine issues in audio clips circulated on WhatsApp. His cousin Salim Yali told Human Rights Watch that Abdullahi Yali advocates not only on behalf of Haratines but of all marginalized people. He has not been arrested previously, his cousin said.

The issues of ethnicity and discrimination are politically sensitive in Mauritania and are the basis for many laws that, under the banner of fighting discrimination and hate speech, contain broad provisions that have been used to punish peaceful critical speech. Article 1 of the constitution forbids “propaganda of a racial or ethnic character.”

On January 18, parliament adopted a law criminalizing discrimination, which harshly punishes speech deemed to incite hatred or discrimination. Four United Nations special rapporteurs immediately criticized the law for the vagueness of its provisions, “potentially putting journalists, human rights defenders and others at risk,” they said, although they praised the law’s professed purpose of combatting discrimination.

Ely said that Yali is accused of violating penal code article 83, which punishes “inciting citizens to arm themselves against the authority of the state or against one another.” The articles of the cybercrime law that he allegedly violated punish “incitement to violence or racial hatred” and “insult[ing] a person by reason of his belonging to a race or color, or ancestry, or national or ethnic origin, or a group that is defined by any of these characteristics.” He is also accused under the 2010 counterterrorism law, which includes in its definition of a terrorist act “an appeal to incite ethnic, racial or religious fanaticism.”

Mauritanian prosecutors used the same counterterrorism law provisions to open a criminal investigation against a retired army officer, Omar Ould Beibacar, in 2015. Beibacar’s offense was a public speech condemning the execution of a large group of Afro-Mauritanian army officers in 1989-1991, calling for those responsible to be held accountable. The investigation has continued for more than two years, during which time Beibacar has been under judicial control and prevented from traveling abroad.

Mauritanian authorities should review and abolish all of its many laws that fail to meet international human rights norms in terms of defining clearly and narrowly incitement to commit violence or racial hatred, Human Rights Watch said.

Yali was born in 1975 and lives in Nouakchott. He studied civil engineering but works in commerce.

In audio clips attributed to Yali that Human Rights Watch has reviewed, the speaker passionately exhorts Haratines to stand up for their rights and resist “the system,” elites, and President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, but does not urge people to take up arms or act violently. If the prosecutors have evidence that Yali genuinely incited others to commit violence or cause other tangible harm, they should share it with the defendant and his lawyers. 

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