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Said and Yarg: Five years later, what has changed?

15 December 2022

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By Menka Sandrasagren, Administrative Assistant at Minority Rights Group International 

In 2000, Said Ould Salem was born in Mauritania. Three years later, his mother gave birth to his brother Yarg. Because they belong to the Harratine community, they were enslaved from birth. They were born into the Moorish El Hassine household, who enslaved them, forcing them to do as they were told under threat of beatings or torture.

They spent their childhood herding camels in the scorching sun and were not allowed to go to school, unlike the El Hassine children. They spent most of their time out in a makeshift camp with the animals. They were forced to carry out domestic tasks with no pay, no time off and no time to play or be children. Instead of their names, they were simply addressed as ‘slave’. Said explained:

‘We weren’t allowed to eat the same food as the rest of the family, sleep in the same rooms, or wear the same clothes. We weren’t equal to the rest of the family, that was obvious. They beat us for any reason, and sometimes we didn’t even know why.’

Though long-abolished, slavery persists in Mauritania. It primarily affects Harratines, a Black ethnic group historically enslaved by the country’s Moorish majority. The extent of its existence today is disputed and hard to exactly determine, with estimates ranging from 1-20 per cent of the population. What is certain, however, is that whether or not they have managed to secure freedom, Harratines live in conditions of great poverty and with the denial of their human rights.

In April 2011, Said managed to escape from the grip of his slaver. With the help of his aunt and local organizations SOS-Esclaves and IRA Mauritania, Said hired a lawyer to prosecute his enslavers and free his brother. Ahmed Ould El-Hassine, head of the household, was found guilty of slavery and not educating a child, and was sentenced to two years in prison. The El-Hassine brothers were found guilty of failing to alert the authorities of the situation and were sentenced to two-year suspended sentences. They were also ordered to pay reparations to Said and Yarg.

This case was the first of its kind at the national level, where an enslaver was prosecuted and convicted under the 2007 law that criminalizes slavery and slavery-like practices in Mauritania. Yet even these lenient sentences were not realized. Said and Yarg had years to wait before their tormentors were brought to justice.

Four months later, the enslavers were freed on bail, awaiting an appeal. That hearing, scheduled for November 2012, was not held because the defendants could not be found. Four years later, the boys were still waiting. Then, with the support of Minority Rights Group International, their case was brought before the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC). This at last prompted the Mauritanian authorities to act, and the appeal hearing was finally organized for November 2016.

The defendants’ two-year sentences remained unchanged, even though the law requires five to ten years in prison for the crime of slavery. The Court of Appeal did slightly increase the amount of compensation awarded to the brothers. An appeal was then lodged with the Supreme Court of Mauritania, which unfortunately upheld the Court of Appeal’s 2018 judgment.

This story is not an anomaly. The brothers’ protracted legal battle betrays a widespread reluctance to bring perpetrators to justice, in a judiciary where, as Aboubekrine e Yehdhih says, ‘many magistrates believe that slavery cannot be abolished by the state: in their eyes, Haratines remain slaves unless they have been explicitly freed by their old masters.’

In December 2017, however, Mauritania failed in its obligations to protect children’s rights under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The ACERWC found that the Mauritanian authorities’ inaction on slavery had resulted in a situation of ‘impunity’. It further called for Mauritania to make wide-reaching changes to national policy and practice to eliminate slavery and slavery-like practices. For Said and Yarg, this decision led to the realization of their citizenship, which enabled them finally to attend school. In the words of Said ‘we have waited a long time, and our lives are very different. We are proud because we are free. We feel like people now.’

This landmark case demonstrated that pursuing international remedies during ongoing national proceedings can significantly advance a case against enslavers at the national level. Nevertheless, this case still demonstrates an untenable situation for victims of slavery in Mauritania. Five years after the ACERWC’s decision, it is unacceptable that it has not been replicated across the country. The light sentences imposed on enslavers are in total contradiction with the ACERWC’s decision. In Mauritania today, almost all slavery cases are stagnating at the investigation stage and most of those accused under the latest anti-slavery law have been acquitted or simply not convicted. Special courts set up for the crime of slavery are under-resourced and inefficient.

The Mauritanian government and its judiciary must work together to ensure that the necessary official and legal recognition is given to victims of slavery for their suffering, and for the advancement of their lives in freedom and dignity. Mauritania is consistently ranked as one of the worst places in the world for slavery. Even those who have achieved freedom are still subjected to systemic discrimination and economic marginalization.

But we cannot stop pushing for the true end of slavery in Mauritania. We await with great interest the next report of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the contemporary forms of slavery, following his 2022 visit to Mauritania. We hope its findings will present another opportunity to encourage Mauritania to take crucial steps to ensure the protection of human rights for all its citizens, including the members of the Harratine community.

Photo: Said and Yarg / Anti-Slavery International.

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