Slavery Victims Struggle for Justice in Mauritania

Abu Bakir Salem

19/06/2022

In 2011, a 7-year-old Mauritanian girl named Maymouna made a dangerous, life-changing decision: She fled the captors who had enslaved her for her entire life.

Seeking freedom, she travelled 280 kilometres before finally meeting human rights activists who helped her file a lawsuit against her slaveholders.

Maymouna is now 18-years-old, and despite her 2011 lawsuit, neither of her perpetrators have been imprisoned, nor has she received any compensation.

This is not an isolated case –– dozens of complainants like Maymouna have won their cases in Mauritanian courts but await enforcement. Simultaneously, similar cases have been presented to the courts but remain entirely undealt with. These neglected cases sit amidst sweeping anti-slavery legislative efforts since 1960s post-independence Mauritania.

This comes despite the wide ranging anti-slavery laws legislated since the 1960’s in post-independence Mauritania.

In 1981, the country’s former military president, Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, issued a presidential decree to abolish and combat slavery.

In the country’s first election in 2007, an anti-slavery law was enacted.

In 2011, a 7-year-old Mauritanian girl named Maymouna made a dangerous, life-changing decision: She fled the captors who had enslaved her for her entire life.

Seeking freedom, she travelled 280 kilometres before finally meeting human rights activists who helped her file a lawsuit against her slaveholders.

Maymouna is now 18-years-old, and despite her 2011 lawsuit, neither of her perpetrators have been imprisoned, nor has she received any compensation.

This is not an isolated case –– dozens of complainants like Maymouna have won their cases in Mauritanian courts but await enforcement. Simultaneously, similar cases have been presented to the courts but remain entirely undealt with. These neglected cases sit amidst sweeping anti-slavery legislative efforts since 1960s post-independence Mauritania.

Most recently, in 2015, law No. (031/2015) was passed, describing slavery as a crime against humanity. The law calls for the punishment of perpetrators of slavery with a prison sentence and mandatory compensation for the victims.

According to Article (7) of the law, he fine amounts to
250,000 to 5 million ouguiyas, that is, $700 - $14,000.

Seven years after the enactment of the law, however, Maymouna and other victims remain uncompensated and disadvantaged.

Mauritanian human rights organizations have noted several obstacles in their efforts to prosecute perpetrators of slavery crimes –– prominent among these, they say, is tribal influence, elite involvement and legal loopholes.

Justice on paper, not in practice

Maymouna’s slaveholders, Sheikh Ahmed Ould El-Siyam and Anjieh Ould El-Siti, may have benefitted from their tribal status.

According to the Mishaal Al Hurriya Organization (The Torch of Freedom), those who enslaved Maymouna belong to influential tribes in the suburbs of Inbekt Lhwash, a city to the east of the country.

Maymouna and her family fell victim to slavery in Libyar, a village also to Mauritania’s east.

In the eastern regions of Mauritania, Maymouna’s domestic work –– which included tending to herds and fetching water –– should have earned her between $28 and $42 per month. All before turning seven, she did this work not only for her slaveholders, but for their cousins as well.

Maymouna did not hear a ruling for her 2011 case until 2019. The 2019 ruling called for the imprisonment of both slaveholders and a penalty fine –– including a mandate to free the rest of Maymouna’s family from slavery.

More than three years have passed, but these sentences have not been implemented.

Doctor El-Hussein Mohamed Jinjin, professor of international humanitarian law and collaborator at the Modern University of Nouakchott, explains that the public prosecutor in state courts has the right to follow up on verdicts and exercise power in implementing sentences. This has not happened in Maymouna’s case nor others, as follow-up on cases lags and authorities remain unpressured to implement the law.

Maymouna remains uncompensated and disadvantaged from her history of enslavement. She was unable to complete her studies because she did not have an ID –– an effect of the failure to implement the judicial ruling. Because of this, she has been forced to stay at home with the family of the human rights activists who originally helped her.



Justice ‘postponed indefinitely’

Fal, a 26-year-old man from Dar Naim, was promised a religious education by a neighbour when he turned eleven. Condoned by Fal’s family, who did not know the neighbour’s intentions, Fal was taken over 700 kilometres eastward to Bahriyya.

This was the village in which Fal would suffer as a slave for the next 12 years.

Fal says he experienced physical torture at the hands of his slaveholder, who forced him to tend to the sheep herd and threatened punishment and deprivation of food.

In the summer of 2017, Fal took a chance similar to Maymouna’s –– on the command to find pasture and water for the livestock, he fled into the desert, moving from place to place until meeting a shepherd who brought him to Kiffa.

Fal lived there for a while before moving to Guérou, where he stayed for a year and a half working on his first monthly salary.

Yet, there were pieces of Fal’s pre-slavery life still to be recovered: most importantly, his relationship with his mother.

Fal had last seen his mother twelve years back, when he was sure he would return on his school breaks. Finally, in July 2019, Fal went back home to look for her. After a long search, Fal located relatives who told him that she had died from severe illness.

Not long after, in late 2019, Fal filed a case at the court in Kiffa against his alleged slaveholder with the help of Najdat Al Abeed (SOS Slaves), a human rights organization.

Despite pressure from human rights activists, Fal’s case was postponed at several stages. The first trial hearing was held only in August 2021, where Fal gave testimony about the physical torture and humiliation he endured under his captor.

The accused attended the trial, but without the relatives the court mandated he bring. This absence postponed Fal’s case indefinitely.

According to Fal and Najdat Al Abeed’ (SOS Slaves), the accused is involved in the social circles of Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Sheikh El-Ghazwany.

There are several legal loopholes in Mauritania’s slavery law (031/2015), Ahmed Ould A’ali, a lawyer defending slavery victims, said; for example, neglecting the allocation of time to interrogate those accused of enslavement.

This, he said, is a loophole which serves the purposes of slaveholders and their accomplices –– like sheikhs of tribes or high-ranking officials –– in order to foreclose litigation on slavery cases.

Another legal expert, El-Hussein Mohamed Jinjin, explained that the Law on Criminalizing Slavery mandates judges who are informed of one or more crimes mentioned in this law to take urgent appropriate action against the perpetrators, and to guarantee the rights of victims.

Fal, like Maymouna, remains at home. In the capital city, he continues to work for a monthly wage.

Justice unenforced

One thousand and five hundred kilometres east from Fal and Nouakchott, 30-year-old Mabrouka laboured in unpaid domestic work for the family of Atwal Amr Ould Eideh.

In 2015, after 25 years, she escaped her slaveholder. She travelled until meeting human rights activists in the city of Bassikounou.

With their help, Mabrouka filed a lawsuit against Atwal Amr Ould Eideh, who confessed to the crimes listed against him.

One of the case documents notes that Mabrouka had been his “slave” since he inherited her from his family when she was not even 4-years-old.

Mabrouka waited five years for the court to hear her case, but Atwal Amr Ould Eideh, despite the summons, did not attend the hearing.

The judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison and demanded he pay five million ouguiyas, $14,000, as compensation for Mabrouka, who was to be immediately registered in the population records of Mauritania.

This court ruling was never enforced.

As experts have noted, tribal influence may be to blame. According to the coordinator at Najdat Al Abeed (SOS Slaves), Atwal Amr Ould Eideh has tribal influence in Bassikounou and its suburbs. He also hails from a tribe that has customary control over some of those areas.

Several other factors may have contributed to the lack of ruling enforcement. Mohamed Ould Mubarak, secretary-general of Najdat Al Abeed (SOS Slaves), said that slavery cases in Bassikounou were oft-dismissed due to lack of judicial independence, the fact that tribesmen were among the judiciary –– and siding with their cousins who are slaveholders –– and an absence of general political will.

Mabrouka now stays at home with her husband and children on the Mauritanian border, where she continues to suffer economically.

Justice under pressure

Kheira, a 42-year-old, suffered under slavery for over half of her life.

For 26 years in Itar, she tended to livestock, did domestic work and fetched water from remote wells with no pay, Aziza Bint Ibrahim, a regional coordinator of Najdat Al Abeed (SOS Slaves), reported.

In 2006, Kheira fled to another village.

The story is familiar by now: Kheira filed a complaint against her slaveholders which was met with delays. This time, however, tribal influences pressured Kheira directly to drop charges.

Kheira’s slaveholders hailed from an influential family based in the north of the country. Unignorable pressures on her older brother ultimately forced her to drop the case.

Today, Kheira is trying to file a new lawsuit against her former enslavers.

“I want justice to take its course,” she said. “It is unfair that I was enslaved for all these years while none of those people are brought to court.”

Kheira supports two children and does not have a job that guarantees a salary which will cover her and her children’s expenses. She is waiting for her complaint to be submitted to court.



Justice realised: The long way forward

Around a year after Mauritania’s anti-slavery law was enacted in 2015, Amnesty International estimated the number of people in Mauritania living in slavery at approximately 43,000.

In March 2018, Amnesty International denounced the increasing repression exercised against those individuals and organizations that condemn and support slavery victims.

More recently, the organisation denounced increasing repression of enslaved people, and condemned individuals and networks which support and enable slavery.

Despite Mauritania’s anti-slavery law and the many individuals and organizations that have mobilised to combat slavery, a long path awaits Maymouna, Fal, Mabrouka, Kheira, and the over-40,000 enslaved people in Mauritania.

ARIJ has contacted the Ministry of Justice in Mauritania for a response to our investigation findings, but has not received a response by the date of this investigation’s publication.