Landmark victory: voices from Mauritania

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Two slave owners were convicted for slavery in Mauritania in a landmark case brought by Anti-Slavery International and its partners SOS-Esclaves. It was the first ever conviction by the Special Courts for Slavery, introduced last year alongside a new anti-slavery law. Read the reaction from Mauritania.

Salimata Lam, National Coordinator of our local partner SOS-Esclaves

27 May 2016

Salimata Lam, National Coordinator of our local partner SOS-Esclaves.

The Special Tribunal against Slavery in Nema was officially opened by the Minister of Justice on 2 May 2016. On 16 May, we saw the first slavery case ever to be heard by a Special Tribunal, and the first prosecution under the revised 2015 anti-slavery legislation. It will send a strong signal, especially in a region like El Hodh Echarqui, a slavery stronghold where feudalism and tribalism are still practised. The economy there largely relies on the rearing and herding of camels, sheep and cattle, and the labour force mainly consists of people of servile status (mostly Haratine) within that system.

The elites, who never thought a master would be brought to court with his slave, will learn that things have changed. The fight against slavery is long, but things will keep changing as long as SOS-Esclaves, Anti-Slavery, Minority Rights Group (MRG), IRA and other partners exist.

The same day the tribunal opened, the President of Mauritania made a speech in Nema saying (once again) that slavery no longer exists, and that to address the legacy of slavery (poverty), the Haratine just need to have fewer children! So the judgement definitely sends a strong signal.

However, the sentence was more lenient than it should be.

The 2015 anti-slavery law states that penalties for the crime of slavery should be between 10 and 20 years’ imprisonment. In his indictment, the Prosecutor did not mince his words; he requested a 20-year jail sentence and a fine of 5 million MRO for the perpetrators. The lawyers’ arguments were compelling; they listed all the atrocities, abuses and deprivations suffered by the two women and their 8 children, to the point that they lost their humanity and became like animals. Therefore, we weren’t satisfied with the verdict rendered by the Special Tribunal, and the lawyers have appealed the court’s decision.

However, considering the official context, the timing and the place where the sentence was handed down, I am happy.

I only met one of the victims: Fatimetou Mint Hamdi, also known as Bouda. She is determined to pursue her case to the end. When her master, in response to the judge’s questions, denied knowing her, she protested indignantly, reminding him of all the abuses he committed against her. Fatimetou was supported by all the members of SOS-Esclaves. When the time came to say goodbye, she assured me that she would never give up the cause and would work with SOS-Esclaves from now on. She was very relieved to see her master being handcuffed and driven away to jail by the police.

Fatimata Mint Zaydih, one of the victims:

‘I was the property of four masters from the same family. They shared me, so each one had a period of the year where I was at his service.

I herded their goats from a very young age. But I was never allowed to milk the goats to feed myself or my children. I was only ever allowed to eat the leftovers from the masters’ meals, which I cooked. Sometimes my masters would see me getting ready to eat and they would suddenly confiscate my food. So sometimes my children and I would go for several days without eating.

I never received any money or anything else for the work I did. When I went out with the animals for long periods, my children would remain with the larger family of masters. My 10-year old son became the slave of one of the masters, and was under his control all the time. This meant I never knew that my boy was eating enough, or if he was eating at all.

Now I can hope for a better future. I want to do training that will enable me to set up a profitable business to support my family. All I want is to live a dignified life, and be able to feed and educate my children.’