(Corrects year that slavery was abolished to 1961 in paragraph 7.)
DAKAR/NOUAKCHOTT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mauritania placed first in a new slavery index ranking 160 countries according to the prevalence of modern day slavery, child marriage and trafficking.
About 150,000 people are enslaved in Mauritania, which has a population of about 3.8 million - meaning the West African nation has twice as many slaves per capita as the next placed country, Haiti, the Global Slavery Index revealed.
Other countries have larger absolute numbers of slaves, such as India with some 13 million slaves in its 1.2 billion population. Other sources put the prevalence of slavery in Mauritania as high as 20 percent.
Slavery is a historical practice in Mauritania and primarily takes the form of chattel slavery, meaning that adult slaves and their children are the property of their masters, according to Walk Free Foundation, an anti-slavery organisation that publishes the index.
Slaves may be bought and sold, rented out and given away as gifts. Women suffer disproportionately from slavery as a high level of control is exercised over their movements and social interactions, and they are subject to sexual assault by their masters, the report said.
Indoctrination to ensure people in slavery accept their situation is based on references to religious teachings. As most people in slavery are kept illiterate and uneducated, they are unaware of the fact that according to Islamic law, a Muslim cannot enslave a fellow Muslim, the report said.
Despite laws in Mauritania outlawing slavery in 1961 and trafficking in 2003 - making them punishable by a prison term of up to 10 years or a fine - few have been convicted or punished for these crimes.
Anti-slavery campaigner Biram Ould Abeid, speaking days before the EU Anti-Trafficking Day, told the European Parliament that Mauritanian authorities had failed to punish those responsible for slavery, and were effectively ignoring legislation.
“Mauritanian authorities intimidate judges and stop them from applying the law against slavery, they intimidate the victims to withdraw their claims against those who practise slavery as well as human rights defenders who support them,” said Abeid, president of the Initiative of the Resurgence for the Abolishment Movement (IRA), an anti-slavery organisation based in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott.
“No one has ever been punished for slavery. On one occasion, a woman who practised slavery with two children was condemned to two years in prison, but the government intervened to free her,” Abeid told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Brussels.
U.N. special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery Gulnara Shahinian visited Mauritania in 2009, and concluded that despite laws and programmes, slavery persisted. Later this month, Shahinian intends to revisit Mauritania to assess progress on the national action plan to implement her recommendations from almost four years ago.
“The Mauritanian government is an Arab-Berber ethnic minority, who founded their lifestyle on slavery. It’s a way of life. And they have to defend this because from the generals, to the ministers to the administrators, all of them have slaves. If you imprison the slave owners and free the slaves, their whole society will come apart,” Abeid said.
CRACKDOWN ON ANTI-SLAVERY ACTIVISTS
The release of the Global Slavery Index comes a week after Mauritanian law enforcement officers cracked down on anti-slavery campaigners in the historic town of Boutilimit, 200 km southeast of Nouakchott.
The gendarmerie dispersed protesters using teargas and batons and made 20 arrests, breaking up a three-week peaceful sit-in outside the police station. The activists were campaigning against the lack of justice for ex-slaves, particularly in the case of Noura Mint Aheimed, who has become a symbol of the struggle.
Noura, 18, escaped from slavery and brought her case to court last month, accusing her former masters of 14 years of exploitation, maltreatment and prevention of attendance at school. Abeid said the government, judiciary and security forces had prevented a just resolution of her case.
“It goes to show that those who commit crimes of slavery among us get respect, consideration and protection and those who denounce this crime under national and international law, get torture and imprisonment,” Abeid said.
As head of the first anti-slavery movement in Mauritania, Abeid is a controversial figure. In April last year he was arrested for burning scholarly Islamic books and accused of renouncing his religion in public.
“It wasn’t burning the Koran, nor the words of the Prophet, but an interpretation of the Koran that legitimises slavery and puts blacks at the margins of humanity,” said Abeid."It was an act of moral insurgency and political dissent."
“Now fellow Muslims in Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia can see how Mauritania is sullying the image of Islam. It makes people think Islam is a barbarous religion and justifies Islamophobia throughout the world,” he said.
Diplomatic sources said the European Union was holding discussions with the Mauritanian government under article 9 of the Cotonou Agreements, which deal with human rights, democratic governance and rule of law. The 28-member bloc provides Mauritania with millions of dollars of humanitarian aid and development cooperation every year.
(Reported by Misha Hussain in Dakar, with additional reporting by Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott.)