Said and Yarg Salem, brothers who were formerly slaves in Mauritania, photographed with their faces hidden for their protection. (Michael Hylton/Anti-Slavery International)

In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to officially abolish slavery. It took another 26 years for its government to pass a law enforcing abolition. So it's perhaps no surprise that slavery continues to plague the nation of roughly 4 million people in northwestern Africa.

Now a landmark ruling by an African Union court, which requires the Mauritanian government to compensate two escaped child slaves and punish their former master, is offering hope to thousands of still-enslaved Mauritanians.

Said and Yarg Salem were born into slavery and escaped in April 2011. Soon after, they brought charges against their former master, Ahmed Ould El Hassine, who was found guilty in the Criminal Court of Nouakchott — Mauritania’s capital — of enslavement and depriving the boys of schooling. It was the first and, so far, only successful prosecution under Mauritania’s 2007 anti-slavery legislation. Advocates considered it a crucial step forward in eradicating slavery there.

“The anti-slavery law is good, but it’s a useless piece of paper if you don’t put it into practice,” said Lucy Claridge, the legal director for Minority Rights Group International, in an interview with The Washington Post.

But Hassine's sentence in the case — two years in prison and compensation amounting to about $4,700 — was far below the suggested penalty. The state prosecutor appealed the overly lenient ruling, while Hassine filed his own appeal against the decision itself — and was released from custody pending a further decision. All of this took place in 2011, but the Mauritanian legal system has taken no further action in the case, which remains pending at the country's Supreme Court.

Seeing no prospects for justice in Mauritania itself, the Salems' local lawyer, in coordination with Minority Rights Group International and SOS Esclaves, a Mauritanian NGO that supports current and former slaves, took the case to a regional court called the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, or ACERWC. They argued that Mauritania failed the boys by not enforcing its own anti-slavery laws.

The ACERWC ruled in their favor on Jan. 26. Mauritania's government, the court said, is responsible for providing the brothers with financial compensation as well as psychological support and legal protection for not enforcing the slavery ban. Claridge is hoping the ruling “will have a positive bearing on the ongoing appeal before the Mauritanian Supreme Court and other criminal complaints of slavery which are currently stagnating in the Mauritanian courts.”

There are 19 other lawsuits against slave owners working their way through the Mauritanian judicial system, as well as many others at the investigatory stage. The ACERWC ruling could offer the incentive needed for the courts to get tough on slave owners.

Pressure from abroad may also play a role. The United States looks set to downgrade Mauritania's status under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a trade pact with the United States, because of Mauritania's lack of action on forced labor.

But the ultimate goal is systemic change in a society and governing system that do not consider slavery a problem.

There are no reliable statistics on how many people are enslaved in Mauritania — the government does not include slaves in its census, and its official stance is that there are no slaves in the country because of the anti-slavery law passed in 2007. But the World Slavery Index estimates that Mauritania has one of the highest rates of enslavement on Earth, with more than 1 percent of the population engaged in forced labor. That number may not account for other, less-formalized types of indentured servitude.

Forced labor of all kinds has a long history in Mauritania, driven by centuries-old social divisions. Most slaves have been members of the Haratine tribes, indigenous West Africans who make up the country’s largest ethnic group — about 40 percent of the population. They are known locally as Black Moors. “White Moors” are Arab-Berbers from North Africa who took control of the region in the 17th century and have been enslaving Haratines ever since.

Slavery passes from one generation to the next, and Mauritania's government — long run by White Moors — has been reluctant to challenge the status quo.

“When I was in Mauritania we worked closely with some anti-slavery NGOs. But there were so many crosscurrents, it was a difficult issue to deal with,” John Limbert, who served as U.S. ambassador to Mauritania from 2000 to 2003, told The Post. “It was also hard to get the Mauritanian court system to deal with slavery cases. The White Moors dominated the legal system and were not about to take decisive action against themselves.”

Between the Salems' case and Mauritania's hosting of the upcoming session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights in April, anti-slavery crusaders such as Claridge hope it will become increasingly difficult for Mauritania to ignore its ugly history of slavery.

“We are taking a holistic strategy in the hopes of creating real change,” she said.

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