The move has been heralded by human rights groups as hugely significant for the abolitionist movement in the west African republic, where modern-day slavery is more prevalent than anywhere else in the world.
Said Ould Salem, now 16, and his brother Yarg, 13, became slaves at birth to the wealthy El Hassine family due to a highly rigid caste system and the practice, entrenched over the course of centuries, of passing down slave status from mother to child.
Considered the property of the El Hassine family, the boys were working full days by the age of five, running errands and cleaning the house until they were able to perform harder tasks such as manual labour and shepherding camel.
“We weren’t allowed to eat the same food as the rest of the family, or eat at the same time as them, or sleep in the same rooms, or wear the same clothes,” said Said speaking from Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital.
“We were not equal to the rest of the family, that was made obvious. They would beat us for any reason at all, and sometimes we didn’t even know the reason.”
The brothers managed to escape five years ago, aged just eight and 11, with the help of an aunt and a local anti-slavery group. A few months after their escape, the criminal court of Nouakchott found Ahmed Ould El Hassine guilty of holding them captive and denying them education.
In the first – and only – successful prosecution under Mauritania’s 2007 anti-slavery legislation, El Hassine was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and ordered to pay $4,700 (£3,866) in compensation. Although the boys’ lawyer appealed the sentence, arguing it was far too lenient, the supreme court released El Hassine on bail a few months later, in clear breach of the verdict.
Five years on, with the help of lawyers and activists, the boys have taken their case to the regional court of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, a body of the African Union. Rights groups representing the brothers are arguing that Mauritania has failed to prosecute those responsible for enslaving them effectively.
They point out that the boys have been denied an education and physically abused, in breach of Mauritania’s obligations under the African charter on children’s rights and welfare.
Minority Rights Group International (MRG), which along with Mauritanian human rights group SOS Esclaves is acting on behalf of the brothers, said it was a good sign the regional court had declared the case admissible nine months after it was opened.
“We can now hope that these two boys will finally receive the justice they deserve, following a complete failure of the justice system in Mauritania to protect them and to challenge the current system of impunity favouring slave owners,” said Ruth Barry, MRG’s legal officer.
Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, the last country in the world to do so, and only made it a crime in 2007. Yet rights groups claim slavery is hugely pervasive, with chattel slavery alone accounting for roughly 800,000 people out of a population of 3.5 million.
Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of members of one family can be beholden to another, anti-slavery activists in Mauritania claim, treated as the property of their masters and forced to work for years without pay or a single day off.
Slaves tend to be predominantly Haratine – descendants of black ethnic groups who have historically been enslaved by the Moor and Berber majority – with male slaves herding cattle or working on farms. Women usually carry out domestic tasks around the house, including raising the children of the families to whom they are enslaved. Forced marriage is common – as is physical abuse and rape – and any child born of such a marriage becomes another slave, by default.
Despite current legislation criminalising slavery, laws are rarely enforced, said Sarah Mathewson, Africa programme manager at Anti-Slavery International, which helped take the original case to the Mauritanian court in 2011. A regional court ruling in favour of the boys is likely to have a significant impact on Nouakchott’s current approach to slavery, she added.
“The president still continues to deny the existence of slavery, saying that it’s only the ‘legacy’ of slavery that exists. Police refuse to investigate, judges throw cases out, or they often change the charges so it’s not a slavery charge, but ‘exploitation of a minor’ or ‘non-payment of wages’. There’s blanket denial at every stage,” Mathewson said.
“If we get a favourable decision against the Mauritanian government, although it would be non-binding, they can still put a huge amount of pressure on the Mauritanian government to do whatever they say has to happen – it’s another avenue to put pressure on them to act.”
The regional court hearing has already hurried Mauritania into action. The country has agreed a date next week for the brothers’ appeal against the lenient 2011 sentence.
As for Said and Yarg, who are both in secondary school and respectively dream of becoming a human rights defender and a lawyer, the possibility of closure brings them great hope.
“We are very happy the case is back in court and look forward to a good result,” said Said.
“We’ve been waiting a long time, and our lives are very different. We are proud because we are free. We feel like we are people now.” (The Guardian—UK)