updated 8/9/2007 8:53:33 PM ET 2007-08-10T00:53:33

Mauritania has passed a law promising jail time for slave-holders, an important step in the northwest African country’s push to eliminate a practice that has quietly persisted despite a 25-year-old ban.

The law, adopted unanimously late Wednesday by the legislature, calls for prison sentences of up to 10 years for people found keeping slaves, along with fines for slave-holders and reparations for those who have been enslaved.

Human rights campaigners praised the law as a signal that a long-awaited cultural shift might finally be taking hold in Mauritania, where slavery has existed for hundreds of years and is ensconced in traditional proverbs, songs and poems. The new law prohibits many of these as pro-slavery propaganda.

The government officially abolished slavery in 1981, but no one has ever been prosecuted for the crime of slavery and no law previously set forth a punishment.

“It’s a historic moment for Mauritania,” said Boubacar Ould Messaoud, president of the anti-slavery activist group SOS Slavery. “We are very happy; the democrats won this battle.”

Messaoud credited Mauritania’s newly elected president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi — its first since a military junta seized power in a 2005 coup — with supporting the law and making the eradication of slavery a priority.

Thousands allegedly enslaved
A new openness about slavery has been growing in Mauritania since the coup. Junta head Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall publicly declared slavery a problem in May 2006, a sharp break from years of denials by deposed President Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya that the practice persisted at all.

A former slave even ran in March presidential elections on a vocal anti-slavery platform — finishing fourth in the first round with 10 percent of the vote. Messaoud Ould Boulkheir was elected to the legislature and currently serves as its president.

It’s difficult to know how persistent the practice of slavery is in this poor nation of Muslim nomads and traders on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

Families of owners and slaves have often lived together for decades, with both sides taking the master-servant relationship as a given. Owners and slaves commonly refer to each other as family, and slaves typically take the last names of their masters, said Asim Turkawi, co-head of the Africa program for London-based Anti-Slavery International. While slavery was once racially based in Mauritania — Arabs taking black Africans as servants — years of intermarriage mean that those distinctions are less prevalent, he said.

“It’s spread across Mauritania in the rural areas and the urban areas. It takes different shapes but it’s across the country,” Turkawi said. “But we do know that thousands of families are in slavery.” He cited research done by campaigners on the ground for the figures.

In an attempt to change cultural norms, the new law also makes any “cultural or artistic work defending slavery” punishable by two years in prison, and makes it an offense for governmental authorities not to pursue slave-holders.

An economic problem?
The law will make invoking common proverbs — such as “One should not buy the slave without the stick” — a punishable offense, said Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham, president of the legislature’s justice commission.

“This law is going to cause problems for people who are used to talking with impunity, who hold close our people’s ancient oral traditions,” said Abdou Ould Sidi, as he bought cloth in the main market of Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott.

Sidi said he owned a family of five slaves until 2003, when he liberated them.

Like any step toward redefining a culture, the law could create a backlash. Anti-Slavery’s Turkawi praised the legislation, but argued that it won’t mean much without the institution of a monitoring body to press the case with a publicity campaign and to help slaves transition into property-owning, educated members of society. Without such measures, people could simply get better at hiding their slaves, he said.

Others in Mauritania called the new law a challenge to the government, which needs to find a way to help an entire impoverished population move toward prosperity.

“There are slaves who hold onto being slaves because they have no way of changing their situation,” said Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a lawyer and human rights activist in Nouakchott.

“It’s essentially an economic problem,” he said. “I’m am completely against these people remaining slaves, but you can’t sanction and criminalize slavery without creating projects to help the poor of this country.”

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