In President Obama's much-vaunted 2009 speech in Cairo, he made a commitment to supporting reform in the Arab world. Though there was plenty in the speech to criticize, many advocates for free speech saw this as a welcome change and hoped for genuine follow-through. Yet, 2009 has been a terrible year for free speech throughout the region: Six journalists were killed, and more than 75 bloggers and cyber-dissidents linger in prisons. And the Western media remains mostly silent.
Mauritania, population 3,129,486, rests at the crossroads of the Arab world and West Africa. Often overlooked as an Arab country, its people -- Arabic speakers and primarily practitioners of Islam -- mostly identify as Arab. The country doesn't make headlines very often, and when it does, it's typically because of a coup (the country experienced two between 2005 and 2008), or the country's seeming obsession with fat.
Silence over jailed blogger
Yet when it comes to issues of free speech and reform, the Western media is hopelessly silent. Hanevy Ould Dahah has been sitting in jail for six months for publishing an anonymous comment from a woman which read "I want to have sex...I am free" on Taqadoumy, the popular site Hanevy edits. On December 24, Hanevy's sentence was up, but authorities refused to release him; the judge claimed that Hanevy cannot be released because the appeals court doesn't have his file.
Hanevy Ould Dahah is an interesting case: educated in Mauritania's Qur'anic schools, he chose a path of rebellion and staunch liberalism, opposing the military coup and daring to return to Mauritania after a stint in the U.S., knowing full well how much the Mauritanian government despised him. He was arrested only a week after returning to Mauritania earlier this year.
U.S.-based Mauritanian civil rights activist Nasser Weddady expressed grave concern for Hanevy's case on his blog, stating:
"Hanevy's case is not just another blogger/journalist thrown away for political reasons. His is one that will have profound implications for the country: if [current Mauritanian ruler General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz] doesn't feel any push back for his treatment of a journalist, he is certainly going to assume that he is free to repress any dissenting voice without fear of any consequences. Let's say that this is THE test case for the future of civil rights in the tiny, often forgotten, nation of Mauritania."
So why should Americans care about Mauritania?
Mauritania is the only Arab country after September 11th that managed to hold a free and fair election (save for Lebanon, depending on your definition of "free and fair"), electing a president without a military invasion in 2007, only to be toppled by a coup a year later. U.S. policy in Mauritania, as with the rest of the Arab world, focuses on terrorism, ignoring the fact that Mauritania has become a dictatorship.
In fact, on December 23, just one day before Hanevy's sentence was to be completed, Obama added Mauritania to a list of sub-Saharan African countries eligible for preferential U.S. tariff treatment under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The U.S. remains silent about Hanevy's case, neither discussing it through the U.S. Embassy in Nouakchott nor the State Department in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, Hanevy is entering the fourth day of his hunger strike, and in a letter transmitted by his lawyers (and translated from the original Arabic, available here), writes:
"I am ready to pay with my life for my deep commitment to democratic values, and also [because of] my categorical rejection of dictatorship's oppression and arrogance, I protest my preventive incarceration which is the cruelest form of tyranny. I enter in an open hunger strike starting today sunday 12/27/2009 until I am freed of this injustice motivated by my opposition to the [Aziz led August 2008] coup. My opposition to the coup is the position I am most proud of through my entire struggle for freedom."