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Slave's Husband Fights for Family Freedom as Thousands of Slaves Still Suffer - 2004-02-17

Human rights activists in Mauritania are calling for authorities to secure the release of a female slave, so she can rejoin her husband.

In a court ruling issued in June, a judge in Mauritania's Guerrou area, 600 kilometers east of the capital Nouakchott, ordered female slave Kelizima Mint Bouta and her five children to be released, so she can rejoin her husband. The judge ruled a wife cannot be forcefully separated from her husband.

But more than seven months later, her masters continue to ignore the ruling, and authorities have done nothing to enforce it.

Anti-slavery groups say there are tens of thousands of slaves in Mauritania and elsewhere along the centuries-old Arab-African Saharan trade routes, including Niger and Sudan.

A descendant of slaves and president of the anti-slavery movement SOS Esclaves, Boubacar Ould Messoud, says he is enraged by the lack of government concern. He says that there are many other cases of slavery, but that this one gained publicity only because the husband is fighting against it. He says most slaves are ashamed of their condition and keep quiet.

The husband, Cheikhna Ould Beilil, a descendant of slaves but never one himself, held a press conference in Nouakchott late Monday to appeal for help.

He says his wife's slave masters had quarreled with him over an allegedly stolen calf, and he moved elsewhere. He says he has built a new home in a different area, but his wife and children have not been allowed to rejoin him.

The wife, a black Haratin descendant of slaves, was born into slavery, and has remained a slave, even though the practice was made illegal in 1981. Her masters are white Moors, the ethnic group that holds political power in Mauritania.

The head of Mauritania's human-rights association, Fatimata Mbaye, says the husband is on his own. She says that in cases like this, even the families will refuse a husband's request to put pressure on the slave owners, because they are afraid of them.

Authorities have done little to eradicate slavery. On the contrary, they have imprisoned anti-slavery activists on the grounds they are giving a false image of Mauritania.

They acknowledge the remnants of slavery exist, but say, in most cases, the slaves are willing participants.

Mauritanian officials refused to comment for this report.