Minority Rights Group International (MRG) in London gained an exciting win for the anti-slavery movement in Mauritania. Slavery based on descent remains widespread in the West African country,  and the anti-slavery struggle has mainly been left to international and local human rights organizations. In this story, Emma Eastwood, Senior Media Officer at MRG, reports the rights group’s scored victory.

By Emma Eastwood | The AfricaPaper

Late last week the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) made a landmark ruling in the case of Said and Yarg Salem against Mauritania. The case was brought by UK based Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and Mauritania’s oldest anti-slavery organization, SOS Esclaves.

Widespread Slavery

In the first ever such case in the country, two brothers born into slavery in Mauritania, sued their former masters for slavery.

Said and Yarg Salem against Mauritania in Anti Slavery Case . Photo: Michael Hylton/MRG
Said and Yarg Salem against Mauritania in Anti Slavery Case. Photo: Michael Hylton/MRG

The ACERWC found that Mauritania’s authorities have failed to prevent, investigate, prosecute, punish and remedy the widespread practice of slavery, which particularly affects the ethnic Haratine community. Ruling that Mauritania’s Anti-Slavery Law does not provide adequate protection against slavery in practice, it found the state to be in violation of its obligations to protect children’s rights under the African Children’s Charter.

Prosecuting Perpetrators

The landmark decision now requires Mauritania to provide the two child victims with compensation, psychosocial support and education, and ensure that all the perpetrators are brought to justice. It must also take wider steps to eradicate child slavery in Mauritania, including providing special measures for child victims and making the elimination of slavery a priority. The decision has major implications for anti-slavery activists in Mauritania and around the world.

“This ruling has the potential to bring about real change in how Mauritania addresses the criminal prosecution of slavery in Mauritania,” says Lucy Claridge, MRG’s Legal Director and member of the team presenting the case to the Committee in 2016.

Generational Slavery

Michael Hylton/MRG
Michael Hylton/MRG

In Mauritania slave status is passed down from mother to child, and the brothers, Said Ould Salem (born 2000) and Yarg Ould Salem (born 2003), automatically became slaves to the El Hassine family at birth.

The boys managed to escape their enslavement in April 2011, and in November that same year, their master, Ahmed Ould El Hassine, was found guilty in the Criminal Court of Nouakchott of holding the brothers in slavery and depriving them of schooling. In the first and only successful prosecution under Mauritania’s 2007 anti-slavery legislation, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment and ordered to pay compensation of MRO 1.35 million [USD 4,700].

Minimal Sentence

The sentence and the amount of damages awarded were far below the tariff of five to ten years imprisonment provided for in the 2007 anti-slavery law and were appealed by the State Prosecutor in 2010. Additionally, El Hassine was released from jail pending the appeal, which did not take place until shortly after the submission of the case to ACERWC.

In November 2016, the Court of Appeal increased the level of compensation awarded to the boys, but their former slave owner’s sentence remained unchanged, requiring him to serve only the remainder of his original two-year sentence.

Appeal Court

A Haratine woman in Nouakchott. Photo: Michael Hylton/MRG
A Haratine woman in Nouakchott. Photo: Michael Hylton/MRG

With the support of MRG and their lawyer, the boys appealed to the Supreme Court.

“We are hopeful that this ruling from the ACERWC will have a positive bearing on the ongoing appeal before the Mauritanian Supreme Court, and other criminal complaints of slavery which are currently stagnating in the Mauritanian courts,’ says Claridge.

Haratine, or Black Moors, comprise about 40 percent of Mauritania’s 4.5 million population. Even though not all of them are currently enslaved, they are the most disenfranchised community in the country and suffer discrimination, marginalization and exclusion due to their historic membership of the ‘slave caste.’

Entrenched Slavery

Mauritania has the most entrenched system of slavery in the world. Even though the government says this practice no longer exists, MRG experienced and observed that slavery continues in the country.

Despite the official abolition of slavery in 1981, it is estimated that around 18 percent of Mauritania’s population live in slavery today, treated as the property of their masters, living under their direct control and receiving no payment for their work. |TAP|