A woman who claimed she was held as a domestic servant and sex slave for 10 years sued Niger’s government for allegedly failing to implement its own laws banning slavery.
The case of Hadijatou Mani, 24, began on Monday in the capital, Niamey.
It was being heard by a regional court run by the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States because Hadijatou “believes she cannot get fair redress at any national court in Niger,” Romana Cacchioli, Africa co-ordinator of Anti-Slavery International, told The Associated Press by telephone.
The head of Niger’s Supreme Court Abdou Zakari attended the hearing and said the case’s outcome would “throw light on the effectiveness of our judicial system and the state of law” in Niger.
Hadijatou was also demanding monetary compensation equivalent to about US$100,000, said one of her lawyers, Ibrahima Kane, of the International Center for Legal Protection of Human Rights.
Niger ‘legitimises slavery’
“Despite the criminalisation of slavery in 2003, the government of Niger is accused of not only failing to protect Hadijatou Mani from the practice of slavery, but also continuing to legitimise this practice through its customary law, which is discriminatory toward women and in direct conflict with its own criminal code and constitution,” Anti-Slavery International said in a statement.
Slavery is banned in Niger and across Africa, but the practice, in which slaves often are inherited, persists in the Sahara Desert nations of Mauritania, Niger and Sudan.
‘Regular beatings and sexual violence
Hadijatou was sold into slavery when she was 12 for about US$500, Anti-Slavery International said.
She was forced to carry out domestic and agricultural work and “also lived as a sexual slave, or ‘sadaka’ to her master, who already had four wives and seven other sadaka”.
She was also subjected to “regular beatings and sexual violence,” the group said.
‘She still has a master’
Hadijatou was released in 2005. Her fate was being decided by national courts in Niger and a final verdict was still pending.
Her “master” claimed Hadijatou was one of his wives, and the woman was imprisoned for three months after being convicted on a charge of bigamy.
Decisions of the regional court were binding on member states.
Two witnesses testified on behalf of Hadijatou on Monday and two state witnesses were expected to speak for the defence on Tuesday.
A verdict was not expected before the end of the week and the ruling could be deferred until next month, Kane said.
“We want her to be treated as a human being like everybody else, because at the moment I am talking to you, she still has a master,” Kane said.
Anti-Slavery International estimated that 43,000 people were being held as slaves in Niger, with most of them born into an established slave class.