Dozens of slaves have escaped or been liberated since slavery was finally criminalized in Mauritania in 2007, but thus far just one slave-owner has been convicted and imprisoned, according to anti-slavery campaigners.
Non-profit SOS Esclaves which has been following slavery cases and supporting ex-slaves for years, said they are presented with between one and five cases per month. “We have parents coming to search for their children, or other family members looking for their brothers, their cousins,” said the organization’s president, Boubacar Messaoud.
Since 2007 seven or eight cases have involved some kind of legal ramification, while dozens remain pending before the courts, according to SOS Esclaves and the Initiative for the Resurgence of Abolitionism (IRA), another rights group based in the capital Nouakchott. But only one case thus far has ended with a conviction - that of a slave-owner who was sentenced to two years in prison, but who was released after four months after paying 200,000 ouguiya (US$677), according to SOS Esclaves.
“More popular pressure is needed to follow up on these cases and to make sure justice is served,” said Messaoud.
Many cases brought to SOS involve parents who escaped slavery and are now trying to free their children. It is easier to track down child slaves as labour laws ban children under age 14 from working, so there is more ballast to use to free them, said a Western diplomat in the capital, Nouakchott.
But children rely on their parents’ testimony as they are unable, as minors, to bring a case forward themselves. The law also disallows civil society groups from bringing forward cases or attending trials. As such, rights groups must wait for slave cases to be reported to them.
“You have to flee yourself - it is the only way to escape,” said SOS national coordinator Salimata Lam.
Most cases emerge from Adrar which spans central Mauritania, and Hodh Ech Chargui and Hodh El Gharbi in the east. Since 2006 some 16 cases have come to light in Bassikounou in the east, 220km from Nema where 55,000 Malian refugees are currently sheltering having fled northern Mali.
Hard to track slaves of nomads
Tracking down slaves of nomadic families is hardest as they are often on the move across borders, mainly to Mali.
A recent case presented to SOS Esclaves came from an ex-slave who had escaped her master, but spotted him again in Mbéra, where he was posing as a Malian refugee. Having left all her children with him, she denounced him, hoping to free them. The case went all the way up to the prime minister, but no official charges were applied and the alleged perpetrator paid a fine of 50,000 ouguiya ($169) and was left alone. The woman says she has never seen her children since.
According to the law, slaveholders could face a 10-year prison sentence and fine of up to $4,000 if caught. Those facilitating face two years of prison, but thus far such punishments have not been issued. Many say government officials are reluctant to take the issue seriously, as they represent an elite that traditionally has owned slaves.
It is difficult to know the extent of slavery in Mauritania as no official study has been undertaken. SOS Esclaves estimates up to one fifth of Mauritanians are enslaved, while Hamend Mbagha, president of the independent advisory body the Commission of Human Rights, believes the numbers are far fewer.
Government reluctant to focus on slavery
SOS Enclaves says this is the government’s responsibility, but many in government are reluctant to focus on slavery, they say, as they do not see it as a widespread problem.
International donors and the UN have pushed for an independent study on the issue, but thus far the government has not responded to the pressure.
The problem is not specific to Mauritania but continues in pockets across the Sahel, said Messaoud. “It is just a question of degree.”
The vast majority of cases in Mauritania involve Arab Moor owners, who are the minority ruling elite of Arab-Berber descent, and Harratin, also known as black moors, and descendants of slaves. But other ethnicities, including the Peulhar, have traditionally kept slaves, said Messaoud, who was himself descended from slaves.
For anti-slavery campaigners, progress on bringing an end to slavery has been painfully slow. The movement suffered a setback when seven IRA protesters were arrested in April 2012 after their head, Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, burned religious texts at a protest. They were freed in September.
But at least the law has given families of slaves some scope to bring cases forward, say activists.
Slavery goes back centuries in Mauritania and slaves too often remain trapped in a mindset that to be owned is part of the natural order of things. In some cases this sentiment runs so deep that they themselves refuse to denounce their owners. In a 2010 case the parents of child slaves also refused to admit there was a problem.
Many, once free, struggle to survive given they have no possessions or education and must get by in a heavily stigmatized society.
Slave-owners have often persuaded slaves that they will go to paradise only if they remain with their master’s family.
A mass awareness-campaign is needed in rural regions where slavery is thought to be most heavily practised, so that masters and slaves can wake up to a new reality, said Mbagha.
As for public pressure, one Western diplomat said: “We are happy with the progress that’s been made, but there is clearly a lot left to do.”