A week in which two slave-owners were jailed and two leading anti-slavery activists were released from prison in Mauritania could mark a turning point in the West African nation's fight to eliminate the practice, campaigners said on Wednesday.
Two men were last week handed five-year prison sentences - one year to be served, four years suspended - and ordered to pay compensation to two victims in only the country's second ever prosecution for slavery since it was criminalised in 2007.
Prominent activists Biram Dah Abeid and Brahim Bilal, who had been in prison for 18 months after taking part in an anti-slavery march, were freed two days later by the Supreme Court.
The court reversed an appeals court judgement made in August which had upheld a two-year sentence for the two Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) leaders.
The two court judgements could signal the beginning of the end of slavery in Mauritania, according to Sarah Mathewson, Africa programme co-ordinator at Anti-Slavery International.
"This should empower people to come forward, access justice and seek compensation," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The two slave-owners – Sidi Mohamed Ould Hanana and Khalihina Ould Heymad – were also ordered to pay compensation to the two female slaves who had brought the case with the support of SOS Esclaves and Anti-Slavery International (ASI). The presiding judge of the Nema special court, which was set up in December, also imposed a fine of 100,000 ouguiya (about $285) and ordered 1m ouguiya in restitution to each of the women.
For only the second time in the country's history, a judge in Mauritania this week convicted two people on charges of slavery, according to anti-slavery activists and U.S. officials.
Dear friends of the Abolition Institute,
Yesterday has a truly historic day in the centuries-old struggle to end slavery in Mauritania.
World renown Mauritanian anti-slavery leaders Biram Abeid and Brahim Ramdhane, both of whom have travelled and spoken in Chicago as guests of the Abolition Institute, were released from prison by the Mauritanian Supreme Court. Read the statement on this momentous event by our U.S. Ambassador to Mauritania Larry Andre, a strong champion for human rights in the region.
Millions of activists across the globe sent e-mails to the Mauritanian government urging their release. Countless news outlets covered their plight. While Biram and Brahim were arrested and imprisoned for speaking out against slavery, their government had, at that time, never successfully prosecuted actual slaveholders.
I personally met with Biram and Brahim in their remote prison in Aleg, Mauritania last year. Their perseverance, optimism and commitment to the cause was truly inspiring. Even in these difficult circumstances, both Biram and Brahim expressed tremendous gratitude to the Abolition Institute and supporters like yourself who are fighting so hard for our shared cause. It has always been deeply meaningful to me that Biram’s last event before receiving the prestigious United Nations Human Rights Prize at the UN General Assembly in New York was to address student activists – the future of the movement – with us in Oak Park, Illinois.
The broader movement against slavery won a second huge victory yesterday as well. For the first time in Mauritania’s history, a special anti-slavery court convicted and sentenced slave-owners to prison and to pay meaningful restitution to women they had enslaved. The only previous conviction for the crime of slavery in Mauritania was in 2011, and the slave-owner never served prison time.
Eight more anti-slavery cases are now pending, and Judge Aliou Ba stated that the decision was meant to send a message to slaveholders that cases will now be vigorously prosecuted in the new courts.
Great credit is due to the lawyer for our partner organization, SOS Esclaves -- Maitre Mohameden Elid. As a Haratine (a group that has traditionally suffered from slavery and discrimination in Mauritania), it was deeply symbolic that Maitre Elid was the first lawyer to argue – and win – a case in the new Mauritanian slavery courts.
Special gratitude also goes to all the members of SOS Esclaves, including founder Boubacar Messaoud, who have struggled for decades against slavery in Mauritania. SOS Esclaves helped both victims escape, assisted them in supporting their families, and organized and filed the successful cases. Legal training and assistance was provided by Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organization and a great partner of ours based in London.
I’d like to close this note with a word about the two female victims, Fatimetou Mint Hamdi and Fatimetou Mint Zaydih. They are who this movement is all about. Fatimetou and Fatimata, both in their late 30s, had lived with the Ould Daoud family since birth as their slaves.
They took great risks and showed great courage, escaping with their children last year with help from local SOS Esclaves activists. Fatimetou attended the public trial and spoke compellingly about what she had suffered. Mauritanian slave masters often claim, when confronted, that their slaves are really just members of their family. When the masters were denying the charges, she began shouting out: ‘That’s not true, you know what we were to you!’ For the first time in history, a Mauritanian slavery court agreed and for that we are truly thankful.
The Abolition Institute