NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania -- Mauritania has passed a law promising jail time for slaveholders, an important step in the northwest African country's push to eliminate a practice that has quietly persisted despite a 25-year-old ban.
The law, adopted unanimously late Wednesday by the legislature, calls for prison sentences of up to 10 years for people found keeping slaves, along with fines for slaveholders and reparations for those who have been enslaved.
Human rights campaigners praised the law as a signal that a long-awaited cultural shift might finally be taking hold in Mauritania, where slavery has existed for hundreds of years and is ensconced in traditional proverbs, songs, and poems. The new law prohibits many of these as pro-slavery propaganda.
The government officially abolished slavery in 1981, but no one has ever been prosecuted for the crime of slavery and no law previously set forth a punishment.
"It's a historic moment for Mauritania," said Boubacar Ould Messaoud, president of the antislavery activist group SOS Slavery. "We are very happy; the democrats won this battle."
Messaoud credited Mauritania's newly elected president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi, its first since a military junta seized power in a 2005 coup, with supporting the law and making the eradication of slavery a priority.
It's difficult to know how persistent slavery is here. Families of owners and slaves have often lived together for decades, with both sides taking the master-servant relationship as a given. Owners and slaves commonly refer to each other as family, and slaves typically take the last names of their masters, said Asim Turkawi, co-leader of the Africa program for London-based Anti-Slavery International. Although slavery was once racially based in Mauritania, with Arabs taking black Africans as servants, years of intermarriage mean those distinctions are less prevalent, he said.
The new law also makes any "cultural or artistic work defending slavery" punishable by two years in prison, and makes it an offense for governmental authorities not to pursue slaveholders.