/ 27 October 2008

Woman wins slavery case against Niger

A West African regional court of justice convicted the state of Niger on Monday for failing to protect a 12-year-old girl from being sold into slavery in a case anti-slavery campaigners hope will set a precedent.

The regional Ecowas Court of Justice ruled that Niger had failed in its obligations to protect Hadijatou Mani, who says she was sold into slavery in 1996 for around $500 and regularly beaten and sexually abused.

”I am very happy with this decision,” Mani, now 24, told reporters at the court. Her comments, in the Hausa language spoken widely in Africa’s Sahel region on the southern fringe of the Sahara, were translated by an interpreter.

Mani was at one point jailed for bigamy by Niger’s court system when her former master opposed her marriage to another man, insisting she had automatically become his own wife when he set her free in 2005.

The case against the state was brought with the help of British-based anti-slavery organisations as a test case to press African governments to stamp out slavery, which campaigners say is rife in some African countries despite legal prohibitions.

The court sentenced Niger to pay 10-million CFA francs ($19 030) in damages and accumulated interest.

”We are law-abiding and will respect this decision,” said Mossi Boubacar, a lawyer for Niger’s government.

The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), based in neighbouring Nigeria, upheld Mani’s claim that the state had failed to protect her from slavery.

But the court, which has been sitting in Niger’s capital Niamey to hear the case, dismissed a second plank of the case, which accused the government of legitimising slavery through customary laws that campaigners say discriminate against women.

London-based Anti-Slavery International says 43 000 people are enslaved in Niger despite the practice being officially outlawed in 2003.

Activists say slavery is also common in other countries in the region, including Mauritania and Sudan.

Anti-Slavery International, one of the groups which helped Mani bring her case, said Mani had been born the daughter of a slave and was bought by El Hadj Souleymane Naroua, a friend of her mother’s master, at the age of 12.

She worked for Naroua for nearly 10 years doing unpaid household chores and agricultural labour and was used as a sex-slave, known locally as a ”wahiya”, bearing three of his children, the organisation said. – Reuters