Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN’s Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. E-mail him at email@example.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
NEW: The victim's attorney says charges against her have been dropped
NEW: The woman is now free, her attorney tells CNN's John Sutter
Previously, activists in Mauritania say an ex-slave with charged with a crime
The government has not commented on the case
[Update, posted on October 23 at 10 a.m. ET]
Charges against Mbeirika Mint M’bareck have been dropped and the young woman is now living free from judicial custody, according to her attorney. It’s unclear exactly why the charges were abandoned. The attorney, El Id Mohameden M’bareck, said the charges likely were dropped before anti-slavery activists on Monday sent a letter to authorities urging the 15-year-old liberated slave not be prosecuted for having sex outside marriage. The attorney welcomed the news, but said it remains important that the girl’s former master be charged with the crime of slavery, instead of a lesser offense, as he says is currently the case.
[Previous story, posted on October 20]
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime.
That’s the apparent reality in Mauritania, the country with the world’s highest incidence of modern slavery. Located in West Africa, on the edge of the Sahara Desert, an estimated 4% to 20% of people there remain enslaved. It was the last country in the world to abolish the practice – in 1981. And it only criminalized owning humans in 2007.
But this latest news still surprised me.
Mbeirika Mint M’bareck, a 15-year-old girl, was rescued from slavery only to be subsequently charged with having sex outside of marriage, according to a letter activists drafted on her behalf. (It is unclear who fathered the child). That crime is potentially punishable by death by stoning, according to an expert I spoke with. The activists planned to send the letter to the country’s ministry of justice on Monday.
“We are shocked and appalled that the prosecuting authorities would bring the charge of (adultery), as this young girl is evidently the victim of the heinous crime of slavery as well as statutory rape,” according to the letter, which the activists provided.
The 15-year-old ex-slave was “heavily pregnant” during a court hearing, which apparently led to the charge of sex outside of marriage. Her alleged captor, meanwhile, was charged simply with “exploitation of a minor (without financial compensation),” as opposed to the charge of slavery, which carries a longer prison term.
The situation is frightening not just for the teenager – who should be released from judicial control, should have the charges against her dropped and should have her case further investigated – but for those women who remain in slavery in Mauritania. After all, as Sarah Mathewson, Anti-Slavery International’s Africa coordinator, noted in an email to me from nearby Niger, news of this case is bound to deter others being held from trying to escape.
“The majority of women in slavery have children outside of marriage, partly because they are so often raped by their masters, or encouraged into sexual relationships from a young age but denied the right to marry formally,” Mathewson wrote. “This charge against a young girl sends a clear message to other women in slavery: If you leave your slave-owner with your children and try to seek justice, not only will we not assist and protect you, we will also charge you for the ‘crime’ of extramarital sex.”
Mauritanian government officials did not immediately respond to e-mail requests for comment on Monday morning. I will update this post if and when I do hear from them. I also have been unable to obtain court documents concerning Mbeirika Mint M’bareck’s case, and will provide details if I do get the chance to view them.
As a point of disclosure: I recently spoke at an event in Chicago sponsored by the Abolition Institute, which is one of the groups that signed a letter to the Mauritanian government.
Mathewson told me she hasn’t heard of other cases of women who were liberated from slavery in Mauritania being charged with similar crimes. But in a highly publicized case, a woman in Niger, Hadijatou Mani, successfully sued for her freedom after escaping slavery and initially being sentenced to six months in prison for the crime of bigamy.
I hope for a similar turnabout for Mbeirika Mint M’bareck, whose name roughly means “blessed” but is interpreted as “lucky charm” in the Mauritanian context, according to Mathewson. The naming convention is “very much a way of diminishing and objectifying them,” she said.
Perhaps this case will help wake up the international community to the continued existence of slavery in the modern world. Mauritania has shown some encouraging signs of progress in recent years. Anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid, after being imprisoned for burning passages of Koranic texts that he said condone slavery, was released from prison and ran unsuccessfully for president this year. He’s won international human rights awards and was featured in a recent New Yorker profile. The government also has created an agency specifically dedicated to trying to end the vestiges of slavery.
“The fact that a girl rescued from a situation of slavery should face this charge is particularly deplorable, given the Mauritanian government’s recent commitments … to strengthen the legal and policy framework against the vestiges of slavery and to increase support for victims,” says a letter to the Mauritanian minister of justice on Mbeirika Mint M’bareck’s behalf, signed by international organizations such as Walk Free, Anti-Slavery International and Free the Slaves, as well as Mauritanian groups.
Mbeirika Mint M’bareck’s case is a sad reminder that progress to date is far from enough. Her case also is a chance for Mauritania to show the world that it’s listening. By releasing her from judicial custody and dropping any charges against her, the justice ministry could send an important message: That it’s finally getting serious about providing justice and eradicating slavery.
It’s 2014. So it’s really about time.