Mauritania’s new anti-slavery law could be undermined by proposed legislation threatening the freedom of non-governmental organisations which act on behalf of victims and a lack of political and judicial will to end the practice, activists said.
The West African nation criminalised slavery in 2007 but a new law, passed last week, makes the offence a crime against humanity and doubles the prison term for offenders to 20 years.
The law will also establish special tribunals in each region of Mauritania to tackle slavery and allows human rights organisations to pursue cases on behalf of victims.
Yet anti-slavery activists fear that a draft law proposed last month restricting the freedom of NGOs could threaten their ability to support victims and secure prosecutions.
“Victims are often intimidated by their masters and would rather go under the radar and not face their captors,” Sarah Mathewson, Africa programme co-ordinator at Anti-Slavery International, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
“It is ironic that there are no slave owners in prison, but three anti-slavery activists have been convicted for leading a peaceful campaign while the freedom of NGOs may be quashed.”
Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1981, and has the highest prevalence of slavery – four percent of the population – with some 150,000 people living as slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index.
Slavery is a historical practice in Mauritania and both adults and their children are the property of their masters. Slaves may be bought and sold, rented out and given away as gifts and have no property rights.
There has only been one conviction for slavery since it was criminalised in 2007, yet the perpetrator was given a lower sentence than the legal minimum and was released pending an appeal that failed to take place, activists said.
Numerous complaints brought under the 2007 law failed due to a lack of adequate investigation by the authorities and cases going unheard in court, according to Carla Clarke, senior legal officer at Minority Rights Group International.
“The real issue is the lack of political and judicial will to end slavery,” Clarke said in a statement.
Three anti-slavery activists who organised a march against slavery in November, including Biram Ould Abeid who came second in last year’s election, were jailed in January for two years for disturbing public order and belonging to an unrecognised organisation.
Two of the men, members of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania, a well-known NGO, will be judged on appeal later this week, according to Anti-Slavery International.