A woman who says she was held as a slave for 10 years took Niger's government to court on Monday for allegedly failing to implement its own laws banning slavery, the first case of its kind in the West African nation.
The case of Hadijatou Mani, 24, was heard by a regional court run by the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States because Hadijatou "believes she cannot get fair redress at any national court in Niger," said Romana Cacchioli, Africa coordinator of Anti-Slavery International.
Hadijatou, who says she was held as a sexual slave and domestic servant, is demanding about $100,000 in compensation, according to one of her lawyers, Ibrahima Kane, with the International Center for Legal Protection of Human Rights.
"We want her to be treated as a human being like everybody else," Kane said. "We want to make sure all her suffering ends, and she needs compensation from the state for not doing anything to stop it for so long."
The case is unprecedented in Niger. Decisions of the regional court are binding on member states and could set a precedent throughout the region for tougher enforcement of anti-slavery laws.
First case of its kind
The head of Niger's Supreme Court, Abdou Zakari, attended the hearing and said the case's outcome would "throw light on the effectiveness of our judicial system and the state of law" in Niger.
Although legally banned in Niger and across Africa, modern day forms of slavery exist in the Sahara Desert nations of Mauritania, Niger and Sudan. Slaves are often inherited or born into castes, and work lifetimes without pay for a family or clan that keeps them subjugated through isolation and ignorance.
"Despite the criminalization of slavery in 2003, the government of Niger is accused of not only failing to protect Hadijatou Mani from the practice of slavery, but also continuing to legitimize this practice through its customary law, which is discriminatory toward women and in direct conflict with its own criminal code and constitution," the rights group Anti-Slavery International said in a statement.
Hadijatou was sold into slavery when she was 12 for about $500, the group said. She was forced to carry out domestic and agricultural work and "also lived as a sexual slave, or 'sadaka' to her master, who already had four wives and seven other sadaka." She was also subjected to "regular beatings and sexual violence," it said.
Hadijatou was freed in 2005 by her former master in an apparent bid to legalize his relationship with her as his wife.
The case has received a lot of attention locally, and senior officials, including the prime minister, the attorney general and the justice minister, attended the opening ceremony, Kane said.
Two witnesses testified on behalf of Hadijatou on Monday and two state witnesses were expected to speak for the defense Tuesday. A verdict is not expected before the end of the week and the ruling could be deferred until next month, Kane said.
Anti-Slavery International estimates that 43,000 people are being held as slaves in Niger, most born into an established slave class.
Hadijatou's fate is already being decided in a separate case by national courts in Niger, and a final verdict in that case is still pending. Her former master claims Hadijatou is one of his wives, and the woman was imprisoned for three months after being convicted on a charge of bigamy.
"Instead of dealing with the slavery issue, they were dealing with the issue of marriage," Kane said. Niger's judicial system "chose not to even deal with the issue of whether she was a slave or not."