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Struggle Against Mauritanian Slavery Continues Despite Abolition Laws

Human rights organizations in Mauritania have freed 43 men, women and children from slavery this year. They say that despite many laws against it, the practice of forced labor continues. The government rejects the charge, but some recently freed victims have spoken out about their experiences. VOA's Scott Bobb has this report from our West Africa Bureau in Dakar.

Bilal Ould Rabah looks old for his 28 years. Strong and wiry, he was born into slavery and for most of his life worked without pay as a herder and domestic worker for his owner.

Rabah found freedom this year. He told VOA reporter Seyid Ould that his family was dispersed when he was very young to serve different masters. He says on one occasion he saw his mother crying and brought the police to free her, but she denied being enslaved and stayed with the master. Rabah was able to free his sisters by filing a complaint with Mauritania's SOS-Slaves organization.

The United Nations estimates there may be half a million Mauritanians living in slavery today.

Hane Mint Salem, a 45 year-old mother of two, was a slave until this year when she was freed. She says her family was scattered when her grandmother was sold to a different tribe. Her first husband was obliged to divorce her because her master would not allow him to take her out of his community.

She says her second husband managed to escape, but she was beaten so she would tell his whereabouts. She left her two children and walked 50 kilometers to find him in the next village.

Trying to free their children, they reported the case. But she says the local authorities threatened to throw them in jail if they showed up again. By chance they met an activist from "SOS-Slaves" who took them to the city, where she waited anxiously for four months until her children were freed and they were re-united.

Experts say slaves in Mauritania are usually of a certain caste or ethnic group. They are born into bondage. Any money they earn must be handed over to their masters. When they die they cannot leave any property to their children, who are also born as slaves.

The practice has proven a difficult tradition to break despite a series of laws, some more than 40 years old, that prohibit it. A new, stronger anti-slavery law was passed last year.

The government says slavery has been abolished, but abolitionists note that nearly four dozen slaves were freed this year alone.

An activist with SOS-Slaves, Biram Ould Abeide, says Mauritania's anti-slavery laws are not enforced and that slaveholders are not punished. Biram says because having slaves is a sign of social status, it is practiced in all sectors of Mauritanian society, even by former slaves. He says Mauritania's abolition laws were passed merely to improve the country's image abroad.

The Mauritanian government denies the charge and accuses the abolitionists of working primarily to further their own interests.

The Association of Women Supporting Families works primarily with female slaves and their children. Its president, Aminetou Mint Moctar, says women are treated especially badly. She says she knows women who were forced to marry their master to increase the number of his slaves.

She says when a victim contacts her group it sends an activist to her home village to verify that she really has been a slave.

The head of Mauritania's Human Rights Commission, former U.S and U.N. ambassador Mohamed Said Ould Hemady, says the laws against slavery are not enforced. "Frankly we are disappointed by people who are in charge of justice because they do not like the law, said Hemady." "They are very conservative and reactionary people."

He says slavery and discrimination are imbedded in the Mauritanian culture and way of thinking. As a result he says it will be very difficult and take a long time to eradicate.