People across Mauritania have expressed shock and outrage over a photo showing a police officer holding a man on the ground by pressing his knee into his neck –  using the exact same move that a police officer used to kill George Floyd in the American city of Minneapolis, sparking a global movement against police violence and racism. This movement has had particular resonance in Mauritania, where the Black community has faced a long history of slavery, violence and oppression.

The incident took place on June 21 in El-Minaa, a suburb located to the southwest of the capital, Nouakchott. The photo was taken by a witness who self-identifies as an activist on social media. It shows two Mauritanian police officers holding a Black man on the ground, facedown. One of the officers has his knee pressed into the man’s neck.

Bloggers sympathetic to the Mauritanian government claimed the man was a "thief", an “armed individual who had attacked the authorities”. However, none of the posts contained specific information about the crimes he was alleged to have committed.

On the other hand, many Mauritanian social-media users were quick to draw a parallel with how US police officer Derek Chauvin restrained and ultimately killed George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis. Many people denounced it as a racist act carried out in a suburb that is home to a majority Black community.

'An arrest using US police tactics, this is disrespectful treatment and must be condemned. Leadership within the (national) security forces should severely punish these two officers.'

'I think the only explanation is that the police planned this as a way to provoke the community'

Hamza Jaafar is a human rights activist and a member of the Sahel Foundation for Human Rights (in French: la fondation Sahel pour la Défense des Droits de l'Homme). Jaafar says that there is nothing new about the Mauritanian police using excessive force towards civilians, especially if those civilians are Black.
 
In the midst of an international movement against racism and police violence, the police used the same method that caused George Floyd’s death in a community that is 90 percent Black. I think the only explanation is that the police planned this as a way to provoke the community.

Slavery wasn’t banned in Mauritania until 1980 and reports by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International show that it hasn’t been totally eradicated. And racism against the Black community in Mauritania is still rampant.

A few days before the incident, Mauritanian TV channel Al-Arabii broadcast a documentary about the enslavement of Black people, which is a sensitive topic in Mauritania. After the documentary was broadcast, the Minister of Culture contacted correspondents for international media outlets and told them that their work permits would be revoked if they reported on topics that “threatened social cohesion” in the country.

'Without George Floyd, this might have gone unreported'

Jaafar believes that the ministry’s threat to correspondents proves that the authorities want to shut down any debate on this topic:

Without George Floyd, this incident might have gone unreported. The security forces here make a habit of assaulting citizens during arrests. Even this time, blogs with close links to the authorities justified this brutal arrest by saying that the man was a criminal who had attacked the officers before trying to flee. They even posted photos that they claimed showed how one of the officers had sustained a hand injury.


Hamid Oueld Mohammed, who has 38,000 Facebook followers, posted a photo that he claims shows the injured hand of one of the police officers who was allegedly attacked by the arrestee.

Other pro-authorities bloggers, like Mohamed Lamine Abd Eddayem, claimed that the security forces were victims of a smear campaign.

'Is this young man dead? No, he isn’t dead. This is [just] a method used to arrest thieves, whether they are white or black. It isn’t reasonable to compare this image with what happened to George Floyd. And it’s a crime to compare Mauritania with the United States,' reads a post written by a blogger who Jaafar says has close links to the police.

Police arrested the person who took the photo of the incident, according to Mauritanian news site Al-Akhbar.

“It’s a warning to anyone who tries to film similar scenes in the future,” says Jaafar.

The Mauritanian Ministry of the Interior sent the FRANCE 24 Observers team a document stating that the two officers had been transferred to the far east of the country in the wake of this brutal arrest.

According to a source in the same Ministry, who wished to remain anonymous, officials considered the incident an “internal affair” and their decision to transfer the officers to be just an "ordinary procedure".

Several social-media users with close links to the Mauritanian government, like Hamid Oueld Mohammed, posted on Facebook that the officers were jailed for three days before being transferred.

A document signed by the Director General of Mauritanian National Security, Mesgharou Ould Sidi, and published by the Mauritanian news site Nawafedh, states that the two police officers involved were transferred to districts in the far east of the country.

Article by Omar Tiss.