Six anti-slavery activists are in prison in Mauritania in a case rights experts say points to the challenges of ensuring a 2007 law criminalizing slavery is more than just words on paper.
The six men, members of the Mauritanian anti-slavery group Initiative pour la résurgence du mouvement abolitioniste (IRA), are set to go on trial in the capital, Nouakchott, on 5 January after two postponements. The authorities reportedly said the IRA members attacked security forces; the activists said they were simply demonstrating against slavery.
“We suspected that the 2007 law would not be put into effect,” Romana Cacchioli, Africa expert with Anti-Slavery International, told IRIN. “And indeed its application is not yet a reality. Cases that have been brought are either still in process but taking a long time or have not been pursued.”
The law makes keeping slaves a crime in Mauritania, but the practice continues. The NGO SOS Esclaves says nearly a fifth of Mauritania’s 3.1 million people were slaves as of 2009.
On 13 December the six activists were arrested while protesting in front of a Nouakchott police station; the activists were calling for the group’s leader to attend the questioning of two girls – aged nine and 13 – allegedly kept as slaves.
“Each time a slave is questioned, the police don’t want [IRA president] Biram Oula Dah Ould Abeid to attend,” IRA member Hamady Lehbouss told IRIN. “This way the police are able to manipulate the slaves.”
Leïla Ahmed, IRA member and Ould Abeid’s wife, was at the police station; she said she felt teargas and saw policemen beating IRA members, including her husband.
The Mauritanian authorities have declined to comment on the arrests or the protest in front of the Nouakchott police station.
The 2007 law – adopted unanimously by Mauritania’s National Assembly – criminalized slavery. But to date, according to IRA and SOS Esclaves, no one has been prosecuted for keeping slaves.
Human rights and anti-slavery activists expressed concern in 2007 that the law alone was insufficient, saying the government must adopt measures to ensure the law would be effective.
The law says slaveholders could be given 10-year prison sentences and fines ranging from US$2,000 to $4,000. Anyone facilitating slavery can be imprisoned for two years. The law also provides for financial compensation to former victims.
The law does not allow representatives of civil society groups to attend trials.
“No legal measures exist for slaves to claim their rights,” IRA secretary-general Boubacar Ould Mohammed told IRIN.
The deputy head of SOS Esclaves in Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Khalifa, said the authorities generally classify such cases simply as disputes between an employer and his or her employees.
Activists said part of the difficulty in criminalizing slavery is that it is so widely practised. “The authorities themselves keep slaves,” Khalifa said.
But also, former slave Haby Rabah told IRIN, many people in slavery do not know their rights or are afraid to leave.
“My masters told me: ‘The slave depends on his owner and in order to go to paradise he must obey his owner. Otherwise he will go to hell’,” said Rabah who, with IRA’s help, was liberated “three years and four months” ago.
“I knew no one but my masters. I belonged to them and that seemed normal to me. When I was young my owners beat me; when I got older they threatened to take me to the police if I disobeyed them.”
Local experts say slavery continues in cities as well as in rural areas in this Sahelian country which lies geographically and culturally between Arab North Africa and black sub-Saharan Africa. Most affected are the Harratin – black Moors, descendants of slaves – who are generally owned by upper class white Moors, the minority ruling elite of Arab-Berber descent, according to SOS Esclaves. Slaves generally do household work or attend to livestock; they are not allowed to own land.
A common saying among Mauritanians is: “The ground is the slave’s bed, fire his clothing.”
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]