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27.10.2008 Africa

Ex-slave in Niger wins landmark case

By BBC
Ex-slave in Niger wins landmark case

A West African court has found Niger's government guilty of failing to protect a woman from slavery in a landmark case for the region.

Hadijatou Mani, who says she was sold aged 12 and made to work for 10 years, has argued in a regional court that the government failed to protect her.

The government of Niger says it has done all it can to eradicate slavery.

Despite being outlawed, slavery also still exists in other West African states such as Mauritania and Mali.

Ms Mani, now 24, says she was sold to a man called Souleymane Naroua when she was 12 years old. The price was the equivalent of around $500 (£315).

She says she was forced to carry out domestic and agricultural work for the next 10 years.

Ms Mani says she was raped at the age of 13 and forced to bear the man's children.

Jailed

"I was beaten so many times I would run to my family," she told the BBC's World Today programme. "Then after a day or two I would be brought back.

"At the time I didn't know what to do but since I learned that slavery has been abolished I told myself that I will no longer be a slave."

In 2005, her master freed her and gave her a "liberation certificate", reports Anti-Slavery International, which is helping her bring the case.

But when she left him and tried to marry another man, her "master" said they were married.

A local court found in favour of Ms Mani and she went ahead with her new wedding.

But this was then overturned on appeal and she was sentenced so six months in prison for bigamy.

She took her case to the Court of Justice of the West African regional body Ecowas earlier this year.

Ms Mani accused the government of Niger of failing to protect her from slavery, which was criminalised just five years ago.

She is also seeking financial compensation.

A local organisation fighting to end the practice says there are more than 40,000 slaves in Niger.

But the government has said such figures are exaggerated.

Anti-Slavery's Romana Cacchioli told the BBC that her group had managed to free about 80 women from slavery in Niger over the past five years.

Binding

One of Ms Mani's lawyers, Ibrahima Kane, says should she win the case it would be life-changing for many people being kept in slavery.

"It will be the end of the status of 'slave' and I hope for many others who are waiting for this decision it will be also a new day because now they will believe that there is a body - when you go before it, it can change your life."

The Ecowas court ruling will be binding on all member states and so would have consequences for people being kept as slaves beyond Niger, the BBC's Idy Baraou reports from Niger.

For generations the children of a slave have automatically become the property of the slave master.

Ms Mani says one of the reasons she has taken this court action is to secure her two children's freedom and ensure they do not have to endure the same fate.

Aidan McQuade, the director of Anti-Slavery International, told the BBC the case would be crucial in highlighting the plight of slaves in Africa.

"This is very important in terms of the community of nations, and particularly the African community of nations looking at other countries within that region and saying: 'What standard are we expecting each other to be held to in relation to international and national law?'"

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