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Mauritania deports freelance photojournalist investigating slavery

Anti-slavery activists hold a banner which reads 'Mauritania: No to slavery and racism', during a demonstration in Dakar, Senegal, 3 August 2016
Anti-slavery activists hold a banner which reads 'Mauritania: No to slavery and racism', during a demonstration in Dakar, Senegal, 3 August 2016

SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 27 March 2018.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns freelance photojournalist Seif Kousmate's arrest and deportation by the Mauritanian authorities for researching a story about slavery, which is illegal but still practiced in Mauritania.

Kousmate, who has French and Moroccan dual nationality, arrived in the Moroccan city of Casablanca on 24 March following his expulsion.

Arrested by the Mauritanian authorities on 20 March at the border with Senegal, from where he had planned to take a flight back to Morocco, he was transferred the same day to police headquarters in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott.

The police confiscated his laptop and mobile phone and detained him arbitrarily for three days in Nouakchott, interrogating him, inter alia, about his links with Biram Dah Abeid, a former presidential candidate and leader of the anti-slavery movement, who he interviewed in the course of his reporting.

After starting a hunger strike, Kousmate was finally expelled on 24 March. Contacted by RSF following his release, he said he was initially "suspected of terrorism and then of activism in support of the cause of the descendants of slaves."

"This journalist's detention and expulsion has again demonstrated the taboo and censorship surrounding the issue of slavery in Mauritania," said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF's Africa desk. "This is the second time in a year that a reporter has been expelled for investigating this subject. Mauritania will not end the illegal practice of slavery by preventing journalists from covering it."

The Mauritanian authorities returned Kousmate's laptop and camera but held on to several memory cards containing photos he had taken. Kousmate said he nonetheless still had enough photos to be able to complete his story and get it published.

Tiphaine Gosse, a French freelance journalist who was investigating slavery in Mauritania, was ordered to leave the country in April 2017 or else be jailed.

Mauritania was one of the world's last countries to abolish slavery, finally making it illegal in 1981. Although a law was passed in 2015 increasing the penalty for slavery from 10 to 20 years in prison, an Amnesty International report published last week estimated that 43,000 people, about 1% of Mauritania's population, are still slaves.

Ranked 55th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Mauritania continues to detain Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed, a blogger arrested more than three years ago who should have been freed after an appeal court in the city of Nouadhibou reduced his sentence on 9 November to two years in prison on a charge of "heresy." He was originally sentenced to death for "apostasy."

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