Hanevy Ould Dahah, who is now being held in Mauritania’s Dar Naim prison, is an unlikely dissident. Half-Arab and half-African, he was marked as a child to become a cleric, memorizing the Quran by age nine and studying at ultra-conservative academies. Some of his former classmates now lead Mauritania’s Salafist movement; Hanevy might have been one of them.
I met Hanevy, now 34, for the first time last year, and I asked him about why he broke with the Islamists as an 18-year-old. He expressed disgust with the government’s and elite society’s tolerance of slavery. He also recounted the horror of witnessing a massacre of black Africans, a minority in Mauritania. The corrosive impact of his country’s dictatorship and religious extremism, he explained, stunted society. Instead of a radical cleric, he became a reformer committed to secular democracy.
In 2007, Hanevy seized upon a unique opportunity. The fall of a 20-year dictatorship and presidential elections suggested that the time was ripe for new democratic experiments. He launched Taqadoumy.com (Arabic for “progressive”), a news portal in Arabic, French and English featuring investigative journalism unparalleled in the Arab world.
Despite limited resources, Hanevy recruited a team of reporters and was soon running the country’s most-read news site—the local equivalent of the Drudge Report or the Huffington Post. Taqadoumy fearlessly exposed scandals and corruption, attracting thousands of readers with photos and documents providing hard evidence for sensational scoops.