Mauritania: Interview with lawyer Me Elid Mohameden
Me Elid Mohameden is a lawyer supported by MRG to represent women and child victims of slavery in Mauritania.
The Haratine form one of the largest ethnic groups in Mauritania, and during the post-colonial era they have struggled to assert their rights and break free of the slavery which has historically subjugated them; 10 to 20 per cent of Mauritania's population is still estimated to be living in slavery today.
Following March 2007 elections, new legislation criminalizing slavery in Mauritania was swiftly passed by the new parliament, but few cases have been successfully convicted and political commitment remains low. Many Haratine activists view other legal measures, such as land reform, as critical to the emancipation of remaining slaves.
Read more about MRG's Mauritania programme.
1. How long have you been working in this field and since when have you been taking on cases of slavery?
I have been taking on cases of slavery for four years, but my personal engagement in this matter has spanned my entire life. Slavery is a reality I see every day, it is an injustice that I see every day. I've seen slaves being mistreated by their masters.
2. What gives you the courage to persevere in the fight to defend the rights of victims of slavery?
It is a matter of personal importance to me, so my engagement is personal. I came out of this social class that for a long time have been victims of slavery, I've lived periods of my life alongside slaves and have witnessed with my own eyes their marginalization, the conditions in which they live, and the discrimination to which they and even their descendants are subject. This is what motivates me. I've seen the government's and authorities' inaction and even stagnation. I've seen their reluctance to recognize slavery. I've seen their reluctance to give the assistance and support necessary to the sons and daughters of slaves, in order to transform the situation in which they have been living for a long time.
3. The case of Said and Yarg, which you are involved in, was the first case in which a slave master was convicted under the 2007 Anti-Slavery law. Why do you think that it has taken so long for such a case to succeed in court?
Firstly, it must be made clear that the law of 2007 is not the first legislation that punishes slavery and those who practice it. Mauritania obtained its independence in 1960. Since 1960, Mauritania has its own constitution that refers to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - which prohibits all exploitation and maltreatment of individuals. Therefore the 2007 law, is not the first legislative instrument that addresses slavery - equality, equal access to opportunities and the prohibition of all forms of treatment that contravene that, are and were all enshrined in our constitution. A constitution in which slavery was therefore forbidden and human rights were promoted.
Despite these constitutional safeguards, slavery has persisted. In 1982, an ordinance prohibiting slavery was issued. In 2007, the adoption of the new Anti-Slavery law was perhaps the official recognition that the phenomenon of slavery was taking place in Mauritania. Yet the practice of slavery persists.
So, despite the constitutional safeguards enacted in 1960, the ordinance of 1982 and the new law of 2007, we only have one conviction of slavery to date.
It is not enough to simply have legislative provisions; it is not enough to just put laws in place. Beyond that what we need is a power; we need the political will of those in authority. When the President of the Republic, when the ministers, when the governors, when the administrative officials, and when judges deny the existence of slavery, even though we have a law that punishes slavery - it is clear that we have a problem. If on one side we have laws that punish slavery and on the other we continue to say that slavery does not exist, logically this doesn't hold.
We are in this mindset of denial, burying reality, since 1960. The mindset of the authorities has not changed and the mentality of the judges has not changed. In the month of July the president of the Republic in a press conference denied the existence of slavery - while we have cases of slavery pending before the judicial bodies and people accused of slavery. How can we say that slavery does not exist while courts are receiving cases that involve slavery, that are within their jurisdiction?
4. In preparing for the hearing of the appeal to the Said and Yargue case, that was initially scheduled in November 2012, but has since been postponed five times, are you feeling confident that the judge will recognize the insufficiency of the lenient sentence that had been given? What would be the ideal outcome?
I would like to see the Court of Appeal modify their judgement on two issues:
1) on the insufficiency of the sentence in relation to what the law stipulates. The law envisages sentences of up to 15 years, while the Slave Master of Said and Yarg was sentenced only to two years. It would be an expression of the good will of the judiciary, in the face of these horrendous practices, to modify the sentence to be in line with what was prescribed by the law.
2) on the damages granted to the boys. 800,000 MRO and 500,000 MRO (approximately €2048 and €1280) are pittance payments when one considers the harm that they have both suffered and the prejudices they were subjected to. Children who at the ages of 11 and nine underwent slavery throughout their entire lives, had no chance of attending school, have been abused and not taken care of, in my estimation, deserve more damages than what was granted. The damages should be revised to be commensurate with the harm they suffered.
5. Should this hearing be decided in favour of the boys, would it make a significant advancement for other cases of slavery that are brought before the courts? If so, in what way?
Yes, yes, yes! It would be a significant advancement; it would show that the judiciary has changed its mentality. This will give those people subjected to slavery the hope and confidence to go and take action against their masters. It would also be encouragement for those who are fighting for human rights.
We discussed the possibilities of taking proceedings against those who practice slavery to the international level. In the event that this judgment is in our favour, we would not exploit this option, but if the case results in a negative judgement for us, we will have to look for other opportunities. These may include taking an action on the international level.
6. On the other hand, what, in your opinion will be the repercussions if the master's appeal is successful?
There are two possibilities. Either the court annuls the first judgement (thus the accused is declared innocent) - in this case it would be accepted that as the master's appeal argues, there was no slavery: the mother of the boys simply entrusted her children to the care of the accused. Or, if the court rules that the sentences were too lenient, it will increase these. This second possibility would be very positive, also for the slave masters - it would send them a clear message that they must free their slaves, that such practice is no longer allowed and that they risk being convicted in court. It would be a step towards changing their mentality.
7. What would the repercussions of the master's appeal being successful, on a societal level?
Firstly it would be disastrous for the slaves. It would be like telling them: you will not be received well before a judge and you will not be given your rights if and when you try to escape your master.
For the slave masters - this would be sending them a message that what they are doing is tolerated and not wrong.
For society in general, it would signal that henceforth slavery is permitted - as a result people will not pursue slavery cases, this will in turn validate the government and authorities' statements that slavery does not exist. It will also work against anti-slavery activists, who are constantly accused of dealing with foreign countries, trying to tarnish the image of Mauritania abroad and divide our society. This will be disastrous for all - activists, slaves, society and the slave masters themselves.
8. How do you prepare the children prior to a court hearing? And what is their understanding of the proceedings that will take place?
I am myself surprised! They are very intelligent - they have been very conscious of the situation that they are in. They responded very aware in the questions and answers that they gave the court. Since they have already been before the judge once, they are already prepared for the types of questions that will be asked.
What we do is we explain to them how to respond to questions, the words that they should choose; we support them until they can accurately describe the things they have endured. I explain to them that it is their masters that will be judged and that they have the right to request damages. I ask them for example, ‘Now that you are going to school, do you notice the schooling that you have missed?' - I ask them this so they understand the gravity and dimension of the matter.
9. What will the principle arguments of the prosecutor be, in your opinion?
The prosecutor hesitated greatly in bringing the appeal. It is because of the pressure we exerted with SOS-Esclave that he finally filed the appeal. Now, whether this resistance will also happen in the appellate courts, is the question. Usually however, when the prosecutor does appeal, it is for an increase in the penalty and damages. I will not sit idle - if the prosecutor does his job, good. If he does not, I will do it in his place!
10. What happened to the conviction of the boys' mother? And what is the mother's position in the case now?
In front of the Court of Appeal she will always be called as one of the accused. The court of Appeal however has the power to exonerate the mother or to modify their judgement.
We would really wish her to be acquitted. Her conviction gives a really bad example - going after a mother who was in a situation in which it was impossible to save her children because she was a slave. She was dominated.
They convicted her in order to discourage the human rights activists - if you denounce the slave master, then we will take the mother with him. This is the message that the institutions are sending out. If you continue to pursue your case, she risks being convicted as well.
See, the lawyers who defend that whole group (the slave master, and the mother) are paid for by the slave master. We will bring this situation to the attention of the court this time.
11. Where are the boys staying while they wait for the case to be heard and how do they envision their future?
The custody of the children has been given and they are being taken care of well. They have started school and advancing well.
I will go visit them a few days before the appeal is heard. I want to get them in the mindset for the hearing and also speak to them about bringing up the situation of their mother, as this will be the first time we do it.
12. What are the barriers that prevent or discourage victims of slavery from fleeing slavery? Speaking out about slavery? Bringing cases to court?
It is a mix of the reluctance of the authorities and the ignorance of slaves who themselves do not know the procedures available to them and their rights according to the existing law.
13. Is there a difference between the older generation and the younger generation? Is the younger generation more able to understand their situation and understand their rights?
I cannot deny that we have made some advances in Mauritania, in terms of awareness etc. But the Haratines continue to live in marginalization; they continue to be stuck in the slums, continue to lack access to education and continue to live in dire poverty. Former slaves come to the towns and they find themselves excluded!
Again I cannot deny the effect of increasing communication, the work of activists, the media who participate in certain progressive initiatives, but the poverty and marginalization remains a reality. The majority of slaves accept their situation because they believe this is the will of God. This makes it very difficult to free slaves or put them in a situation where they can make informed decisions.
14. Do you think that, if the current law would change to allow non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to bring cases or file complaints on the victim's behalf, we would see more cases on slavery emerge in the courts/ we would see the 2007 Anti-Slavery law being used more in practice?
NGOs can be a great support to victims who face various barriers and problems. They face institutions and processes that are slow and unconvinced. The authorities usually do not believe them and the chances of getting a positive result are virtually zero.
Now, in many cases in the victims waive their complaints, often due to the pressure exerted on them by their former masters. Allowing NGOs to bring cases, to be party to civil cases, would mean that even if the victim of slavery renounces to bring a case, the NGO can continue the pursuit. This is why such a development would be important.
15. What, in your extensive personal and professional experience, would be the way to go about eradicating slavery not only at the structural, legal, level but also at the societal and mind-set level?
Firstly, there needs to be a strong political will of governments and authorities - at domestic and international levels. Pressure needs to be put on the government of Mauritania, and NGOs should be supported and left to do their work in peace.
We need campaigns to raise awareness among slave masters that their practice of slavery is no longer possible, that they can no longer hide slaves. We need campaigns to raise awareness among victims of slavery that there is a law to protect them, that they can leave their masters, that there are resources and support to help organizations (NGOs etc). Such campaigns must have the support of the authorities, and they must involve NGOs, victims, lawyers etc. If we do this, we will have concrete results.
It would also be useful to make Mauritanian authorities aware that if they themselves are not prepared to pursue those who perpetrate the practice of slavery, they can be pursued elsewhere - in front of other courts. International arrest warrants can be issued. It must be made clear that such practices will not be accepted!
16. Do the slave masters, in your experience, know that there is such an anti-slavery law?
The slave masters justify slavery by their interpretation of Sharia law - this is problematic because it is not religion which allows for slavery, it is just the interpretation of the religion. That is where the problem is. And the authorities do not want the enlightened Imams that hold this understanding of religion to go and speak on the radio or TV to denounce slavery.
17. Have you experienced discrimination or hardship due to your taking up of Said and Yarg's case?
Well for example, we are always under pressure, we are never invited to speak on the radio or television because we are considered a disturbance. But we remain hopeful and we continue despite all these difficulties.