University graduate Mohamed Abderrahmane Ould Bezeid died on Saturday 11 February 2012 and was buried the same night. He had been in the hospital two days. The authorities said he had tried to commit suicide by setting fire to himself, but people are demanding an investigation.
This young man was a gifted student, a university graduate, and a linguist, speaking four languages fluently. Unable to secure a role related to his degree, he turned to teaching as a source of income.
Alongside his former classmates and friends, Mohamed had attended some of the peaceful opposition protests – generally sit-ins or marches – that have been a regular feature in Mauritania during the past year. He was an amiable and popular young man, known for his wit, humour and compassion, a devoted husband and father. His friends and family all attest to his personality and disposition as one of balance and virtue. In other words, not an excitable person prone to rash behaviour. Mohamed was in a difficult situation regarding his income and employment, but he was not depressed or ready to give up.
There are gaps in the story of events leading to Mohamed’s death which raise unanswered questions. I don’t have every detail, but I want to share what I have read and heard with you. I believe it is important that we examine these facts, if only for the sake of his family as they contend with their grief. This is my own interpretation, and may need editing or updating to provide a more complete and accurate account.
- On the afternoon of Thursday, February 10th, 2012, Mohamed Bezeid attended prayers at the mosque close to his family home.
- Shortly after returning home from the mosque, he left, telling his sister, who was preparing the evening meal, to save him some dinner for his return later than night.
- Late that night the family received a phone call from someone who did not identify themselves. The caller asked if they knew anyone by the name of Mohamed Abderrahmane Ould Beizid. After they confirmed that yes, they not only knew him, this was his family home, the caller also asked if they knew whether he had any links to the terrorist group known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This question was regarded by the family as a ridiculous suggestion, immediately denied and dismissed, but made them feel extremely agitated and confused. However, the family were then told that Mohamed had been involved in a vehicle accident, and was in the National Hospital in Nouakchott. There was no time then to ponder the reasons for asking about AQIM; they wanted to set off immediately to see Mohamed.
- On arrival at the hospital, the family were surprised to discover a large crowd of people and media, and to learn by overhearing talk amongst the crowd of someone having set fire to himself. Wanting to see their loved one as quickly as possible, they didn’t linger in the crowd and made their way straight to the emergency room. There, they discovered Mohamed in a solitary ward away from other patients, and swathed in bandages from head to toe with only his face exposed. He was unconscious. At this point, the family were informed that Mohamed had not in fact been in a car crash but had tried to set himself on fire outside the Presidential Palace, and had been rescued by the Palace Guards.
- The family maintained a vigil by Mohamed’s bedside hoping for his recovery, watching as he slipped in and out of consciousness. His accident was reported as an attempted suicide, causing extreme mental anguish for this family of devout Muslims, since suicide is utterly forbidden and taboo in Islam. During one of the times when Mohamed regained conciousness just a little, he tried to convey to his sister that he had not burned himself – his words were “did not burn” – and in response to being told the authorities’ version of events, that he had deliberately poured petrol on himself he could only respond, “lies,lies, lies”.
- Suspicion of foul play was increased when his family noticed that, despite Mohamed remaining swathed in bandages, dark bruises began to appear on those small areas of skin which were exposed. The family had been at his side the whole time, these bruises could not have been the result of any injury which occurred after he was brought to the hospital.
- Shortly after this revelation, Mohamed passed away. The family wished to wash his body according to Islamic custom, and to have a physician inspect these bruises which had appeared. The authorities refused, and Mohamed was buried that same night.
- Still determined to know the truth, Mohamed’s family spoke to the media in an interview, expressing their concerns:
- On Tuesday, 14 February 2011, an opposition MP issued a statement calling for a judicial inquiry into the incident, and asking why, since there are CCTV cameras in the area, the footage has not been published. His statement has not yet been broadcast on the TV network, as is customary, but it was given radio coverage.
- The MP’s statement says the CCTV cameras are controlled by the Central Bank.
- The current president of Mauritania, General Aziz, reportedly met with the head of the Central Bank on Monday.
- Also on 14 February 2011, a friend of Mohamed Bezeid reported that the family recieved a visit from a delegation of the Presidential Office, and that
- Mohamed’s family were coerced by the police to sign a waiver agreeing not to demand an inquiry into Mohamed’s death.
Some questions that might help obtain the truth about Mohamed’s death:
- Why did Mohamed leave the house that evening, did anyone know his plans, had he arranged to meet anyone?
- If he planned to die, why leave the house with just a casual farewell and tell his family to save some dinner for him?
- How did he travel? If he used a car, where is it now, did anyone see it that night?
- Where did he go? Did he stop off anywhere, did anyone see him?
- Who called the family, and why did they ask about having links to AQIM?
- Why was Mohamed’s condition ascribed to a vehicle accident by the person who called his family?
- If he planned to set fire to himself, as an educated man with an interest in civil rights, why did he not leave a note?
- What were his whispered messages trying to convey, what else could “did not burn” and “lies, lies, lies” mean except he did not burn himself and the story from the authorities was a lie?
- Why is the CCTV footage from cameras in control of the Central Bank not available?
- Cui bono? – who benefits?
Additional background information
Motor vehicle accidents are a relatively frequent event in Mauritania: road infrastructure is incomplete; many roads are poorly maintained; long stretches of road lack adequate lighting. Many of the inevitable accidents which occur under these conditions are serious and often fatal.
Whatever happened to Mohamed Bezeid occurred the day before the new President of Tunisia, Moncef Marzouki, arrived in Mauritania on his first official visit. The act of self-immolation by Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia on 4 January 2011 is often described as the spark which ignited the uprising there that ousted the former President, and heralded the spread of civil unrest across the Arab world.
The day after Mohamed Bezeid was taken to hospital, on Friday 11 February, a peaceful protest march by the ‘February 25’ activist movement was planned in Nouakchott. An hour before the scheduled start, three buses parked in a back street about 500 metres away from the advertised departure point were set on fire. There were no witnesses, but the fire was reported as an ‘arson attack’ by ‘unidentified youths’. Several social media commentators have speculated that it was more likely that the police or security forces themselves were responsible for the arson. Their logic is appealing: it would create an atmosphere of instability and lend credibility to the simultaneous police attack on the Art College of Nouakchott University, which resulted in 11 arrests; and also the subsequent police attacks on the peaceful ‘February 25’ march, which were severe, disproportionate to the event itself, and resulted in dozens injured and 20 arrests . The point was also made that activists are unlikely to destroy their only means of public transport, and that anyone who did wish to burn public transport as a political statement would choose a time where there were no competing events, and a location that would allow a crowd to assemble.
The government has been accused of persecuting youth who took part in protests, through harassing them, and submitting many to arbitrary arrest and detention without access to legal counsel. The commitment to non-violence of this group of activists – the February 25 Movement – must be appreciated, as it includes the renouncement of all violence, including self-harm. They were all aware of the deliberate self-immolation of a successful local businessman, Yacoub Ould Dahoud, on January 17, 2011. Yacoub’s reasons were clear: he left a note detailing his decision, and explaining his act was intended to inspire action against injustice in Mauritania. But although Yacoub’s act was meant as a sacrifice and a call to action, it should not be construed that he also intended it as an example for others to follow. Some of these activists were indeed touched by Yacoub’s act, and held a rally outside the Presidential Palace in Nouakchott on January 17th 2012, the anniversary of his immolation. They were determined that Yacoub should be remembered, especially as the reasons for his act of protest not only remain, but have increased in magnitude since he died. Not one of the activists ever expressed any intent to kill themselves.
Because his father passed away, Mohamed was the chief income earner for his wife and young child as well as his mother, sisters and extended family. The Education board allocated Mohamed to a school in the remote East of the country near the border with Mali; a distant location, with restricted access to transport, too far from home for a daily commute. Because of his role as head of the household Mohamed needed to accompany his mother to Senegal for medical treatment. He asked for an assignment in Nouakchott to be near his family, but his request was refused. He took a leave of absence, and continued to request a transfer. His requests were ignored and his pay was stopped for the past three months or more.