Two brothers who say they were regularly beaten and forced to work as child slaves in Mauritania have taken their case to a regional African child rights body, where they are testifying against their abuser and the Mauritanian government.
Case of brothers enslaved at birth to be brought before regional child welfare court after failure to uphold 2011 sentence against Ahmed Ould El Hassine
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.
We are proud because we are free. We feel like we are people now …
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.”
Mauritania ex-President on trial for corruption
Details of the Case
The 66-year-old Aziz has been under house arrest since he was charged in 2021 and has only been able to leave his residence for prayers or medical care. He served as the country’s president from 2008 to 2019, during which time he handed over power to his close aide Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ghazouani, making it the first peaceful transfer of government in Mauritania since independence from France in 1960. Despite the country being a moderate Islamic republic, it has seen five coups since independence and was led by military rulers for much of that time.
Refusal to Cooperate and Illegal Prosecution
After his arrest, Aziz refused to cooperate with the investigation, citing his immunity as a former president and calling the prosecution illegal. During the opening arguments on Wednesday, his legal team, consisting of French, Senegalese, Lebanese, and Mauritanian lawyers, argued that the trial was not warranted. One of his defense lawyers, Mohamed Ichidou, stated that the trial was “unfair and unjust and it consecrates control of the executive power on our justice.”
Trial to Last Several Weeks
The trial is expected to last several weeks and will be closely watched by the international community. The outcome of this trial will have a significant impact on the country’s political and legal landscape. The former President and his co-defendants deny all charges against them, and their defense team is fighting to prove their innocence.
The trial of former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and ten other defendants for allegations of corruption and money laundering has begun in Mauritania. The trial is expected to last several weeks and will be watched closely by the international community. The outcome of this trial will set a precedent for the country’s legal and political landscape for years to come.
Mauritanian Minister Highlights Country’s Successful Efforts To Combat Terrorism
After heavy fighting in 2010 and 2011, and despite a complex regional situation, Mauritania has faced the threat of terrorism successfully. “We have strengthened our defensive capacities while respecting human rights and putting in place a policy of sustainable development,” he explained. In addition, Mauritania has succeeded in building a constructive dialogue with the opposition and civil society, improving governance and reforming institutions, particularly with regard to women’s rights.
Mauritania, he continued, has reformed its legal frameworks on the basis of international agreements, in particular, to better combat terrorism. To this end, he noted the conclusion of agreements with some groups in order to allow their members to reintegrate into society in a productive way.
Mauritania, in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has eradicated illegal migration from its territory, the Minister continued. “We also set out a roadmap on the fight against terrorism, including through a social assistance program,” he said, adding that repatriation programmes have also been implemented for migrants, in order to enable them to return to the country under favourable conditions.
The Minister also spoke about the problems caused by climate change in the Sahel region. In this regard, he encouraged all parties to the Paris Agreement on climate change to honour their commitments in order to limit the impacts of the phenomenon.
Mauritania Constitutional Referendum, UN Human Right Office Concerned About Impending Unres
3 August 2017 – The United Nations human rights office today expressed concern about the ongoing unrest in Mauritania, ahead of the constitutional referendum scheduled for Saturday, particularly the apparent suppression of dissenting voices and the reported use of excessive force by the authorities against protest leaders.
“Protests have been taking place daily since 21 July, led by opposition politicians calling for a boycott of the vote,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in a statement.
“The authorities reportedly did not respond to the majority of requests for authorization for the protests and actively dispersed gatherings. In several cases, protest leaders were reportedly beaten up and a number of them were arrested,” she added.
An amendment to Mauritania’s constitution, which would abolish the Senate and change the national flag, is put to a vote in the referendum.
Mass protests are planned this afternoon in Nouakchott and reports suggest that the Senate building has been cordoned off by the police and the gendarmerie.
OHCHR urged the Government to ensure that its response to the protests is line with its obligations under international human rights law and to ensure that the rights to peaceful assembly, to freedom of opinion and expression are fully respected.
“These rights are particularly precious in a pre-electoral context,” she said, calling on all sides to refrain from the use of violence and to take measures to prevent the situation from escalating.
The Government has a responsibility to ensure that the elections are held in conformity with the international human rights obligations of Mauritania, and should take all necessary measures to ensure free, transparent and credible elections, she stressed.
The President of the Republic congratulates his Romanian counterpart
Nouakchott, 30/11/2016 – The President of the Republic, Mr Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, addressed the following congratulatory message to the President of the Republic of Romania, Mr Klaus Iohannis, on the occasion of his national holiday country:
On the occasion of the celebration of the National Day of the Republic of Romania, I have the great pleasure of expressing to you my warmest congratulations and best wishes for the progress of the Romanian people.
I would like to reiterate our determination to continue our efforts to strengthen and develop the cooperative relations between our two countries in the mutual interest of our two friendly peoples.
Please accept, Excellency, the assurance of my highest consideration.
Mohamed OULD ABDEL AZIZ ”
Anti-Slavery Activists Win Partial Court Appeal
An appeals court in Mauritania overturned three convictions and reduced the sentences of 10 other anti-slavery activists in their alleged role in a riot in June. Three still remain in prison.
A Mauritanian appeals court overturned three convictions and reduced the sentences of 10 other anti-slavery activists Friday for their alleged role in a riot in June.
The 13 activists are members of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA). They were sentenced in August to up to 15 years in prison after a protest against eviction by residents of a slum in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. Many of the protesters were former slaves. The 13 activists were initially convicted of using violence, attacking security, gathering while armed and being a part of an unrecognized organization – namely, the IRA.
Amnesty International’s West Africa campaigner Kine Fatim Diop said the activists were “unfairly sentenced” for “peacefully expressing their opinions.” Three activists remain behind bars. Diop said the activists still imprisoned was a “distressing sign of the shrinking space” afforded to human rights activists in Mauritania.
UN experts said the trial was marred by rights violations, including torture in detention and irregularities during court proceedings.
Slavery remains in Mauritania
Despite slavery officially being outlawed in Mauritania in 1981, the west African nation remains a hotbed for slavery. Modern-day slavery in Mauritania exists under a caste system of servitude forces those in the “slave” caste to work as cattle herders or domestic servants without pay.
Mauritania has tried to crack down on slavery and passed a law in 2015 that made slavery a crime against humanity. Campaigners say this is not enough to eradicate the practice in the west African nation, however.
UN experts concerned about imprisoned human rights activists
GENEVA (19 October 2016) – A group of United Nations human rights experts * today expressed serious concern that Mauritanian activists imprisoned for their alleged role in a protest against evictions forced to Nouakchott, are targeted by the government for their anti-slavery advocate.
The human rights activists were sentenced in August to prison terms ranging from three to fifteen years. The date of the appeal hearing will be fixed over the weekend by the Court of Appeal Nouadhibou.
Thirteen of the militants are members of the Initiative for the resurgence of the abolitionist movement (IRA), the main organization of Mauritanian civil society fighting against slavery. The militants have consistently denied any involvement in the protests against forced evictions, during which several people, including policemen, were injured.
“The Mauritanian government is hostile to all groups in civil society who criticize its policies and is particularly hostile to groups such as the IRA, whose members are from the Haratine minority, and working to promote the end of slavery, “stressed the expert, recalling that the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, visited Mauritania in May and met with some members of the IRA.
“The conviction of activists fits a pattern of repression of dissent from the ruling party in a country where an ethnic minority dominates the other two major ethnic groups,” noted the experts. “We are concerned that the IRA has also been the target of reprisals by the government because of their meeting with the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights during his visit in the country” .
The trial, held in August was marred by serious violations of fair trial and other violations of human rights. Credible evidence for the proposition that IRA members were tortured during their detention, the family members and supporters of the accused were attacked by police when they tried to attend the trial but also that procedural irregularities were registered during the legal proceedings.
“We received information indicating that the overall process failed to respect the most basic guarantees of a fair trial and due process, including the right to have adequate access to a lawyer “experts said human rights.
These procedural irregularities appear to have persisted during the appeal phase. The appeal process was recently transferred from the Nouakchott Court of Appeal to the Court of Appeal of Nouadhibou, about 500 kilometers from the capital. Members of the imprisoned IRA were transferred on September 28th in Nouakchott in a detention center in Zouerate, about 700 kilometers from Nouakchott to seventeen hour drive from Nouadhibou.
“There seems to be no legal basis and no justification for the transfer of detainees,” they stressed. “This is yet another indication that these prosecutions are politically motivated and designed to stifle the groups and individuals that promote human rights and who oppose government policies.”
“We urge the authorities to ensure that the militants are transferred to Nouakchott and given a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial in accordance with international human rights law,” stressed the expert. They also expressed concern about the serious health condition of some prisoners, recalling the obligation of Mauritania to protect the right to health of detainees and to provide urgent and adequate medical care needed regardless of status legal.
“It is essential to ensure that human rights activists can exercise their rights and fundamental freedoms without intimidation or fear of reprisal. The anti-slavery activism can not be a crime, “stressed the expert. “The government of Mauritania must review its criminal legislation to comply with its international obligation to respect and protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
UN independent experts have been in contact with the Mauritanian government to clarify this situation.
(*) Experts: Mr. Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; Mr. Sètondji Roland Adjovi, Chairman of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Mr. Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association; Mr. Dainius Puras, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Mónica Pinto, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; Juan E. Méndez, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
The independent UN experts are part of what is known as the special procedures of the Human Rights. Special procedures, the most important organ of independent experts of the human rights system UN man, is the general term applied to the investigation mechanisms and independent of the Council followed that cater to specific situations countries or thematic issues throughout the world. The experts of the special procedures work as volunteers; they are not part of the UN staff and they receive no salary for their work. They are independent of governments and organizations, and they exercise their functions independently.
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