Dakar — A week in which two slave-owners were jailed and two leading anti-slavery activists were released from prison in Mauritania could mark a turning point in the West African nation's fight to eliminate the practice, campaigners said on Wednesday.
Two men were last week handed five-year prison sentences - one year to be served, four years suspended - and ordered to pay compensation to two victims in only the country's second ever prosecution for slavery since it was criminalised in 2007.
Prominent activists Biram Dah Abeid and Brahim Bilal, who had been in prison for 18 months after taking part in an anti-slavery march, were freed two days later by the Supreme Court.
The court reversed an appeals court judgement made in August which had upheld a two-year sentence for the two Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) leaders.
The two court judgements could signal the beginning of the end of slavery in Mauritania, according to Sarah Mathewson, Africa programme co-ordinator at Anti-Slavery International.
"This should empower people to come forward, access justice and seek compensation," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It will also send a message to slave masters - that they cannot continue to treat people like objects, trade them and abuse them with impunity," she said by phone from London.
Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1981, and has the highest prevalence of slavery - four percent of the population - with some 150,000 people living as slaves, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index.
The Haratin, who make up the main "slave caste", are descended from black African ethnic groups along the Senegal river. They often work as cattle herders and domestic servants.
The two jailed slave-owners were the first people in Mauritania to be prosecuted by a dedicated slavery court which was established by a new anti-slavery law passed last year.
The law made the offence a crime against humanity and doubled the prison term for perpetrators to 20 years.
"It's been a hugely significant week, but we still have reservations about these special courts," Mathewson said.
"Justice should be delivered at a local level, in all courts across the country, so communities can see slave-owners, that they know, being held to account and victims being vindicated."
The presiding judge and head of the anti-slavery court in Nema, Aliou Ba, said the sentences were intended to show Mauritanians that slavery will be taken seriously, and added that he has eight other slavery cases on his books.
Yet the leniency of the sentences - five years compared to the maximum of 20 years set down in the law - could send a conflicting message to slave owners, said Carla Clarke, senior legal Officer at Minority Rights Group International.
"They should have been convicted for longer, but it's better than nothing," said Abidine Merzough, IRA Europe coordinator.
"The most important thing is that the law was applied - in a country where the regime has tried to deny that slavery exists."
Biram Dah Abeid, head of the IRA and runner-up in the last presidential elections, said after being released last week that he would again run for president, as he felt popular opinion increasingly backed him and his organisation.
Mauritania earlier this year became only the fourth country, alongside Norway, Niger and Britain, to approve a United Nations treaty designed to give countries the legal muscle to combat forced labour and trafficking.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen)