A woman who claims she was held as a domestic servant and sexual slave for 10 years is suing Niger's government for failing to implement its own laws banning slavery in an unprecedented legal action.
Twenty-four-year-old Hadijatou Mani's case began Monday in the capital, Niamey. It is 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 coordinator of Anti-Slavery International, told The Associated Press by telephone.
Comment from Niger's government was not immediately available.
Hadijatou is also demanding monetary compensation equivalent to about $100,000, said one of her lawyers, Ibrahima Kane of the International Center for Legal Protection of Human Rights.
"Despite the criminalization 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 legitimize 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. Slaves usually inherit their ordeal, working a lifetime without pay for a single family or clan that keeps them subjugated through isolation and ignorance.
Hadijatou was sold into slavery when she was 12 for about $500, Anti-Slavery International said. She was forced 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.
Hadijatou was released in 2005. Her fate is already being decided by national courts in Niger, and a final verdict is still pending. Her "master" claims Hadijatou is one of his wives, and the woman was imprisoned for three months after being convicted on a charge of bigamy.
"Instead of dealing with slavery issue, they were dealing with issue of marriage," Kane said. Niger's judicial system "chose not to even deal with the issue of whether she was a slave or not."
Decisions of the regional court are binding on member states.
The case is getting a lot of attention locally, and top officials including the prime minister, the attorney general and the justice minister attended the opening ceremony, Kane said.
Two witnesses testified on behalf of Hadijatou on Monday and two state witnesses are expected to speak for the defense on Tuesday. A verdict is not expected before week's end 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. "We want to make sure all her suffering ends, and she needs compensation from the state for not doing anything to stop it for so long."
Anti-Slavery International estimates 43,000 people are being held as slaves in Niger, most born into an established slave class.
A ruling in Hadijatou's favor "would send a message that the long-standing legal prohibition on slavery must be translated into practice and would clarify the practical nature of States obligations to eradicate slavery," the anti-slavery group said in a statement.