`Thousands' of Blacks Enslaved in Mauritania, Rights Group Says


MOUSTAPHA, a black shepherd, was a slave in the West African state of Mauritania until he escaped to neighboring Senegal in March 1990.

He was once whipped for visiting free blacks who told him slavery had been abolished there in 1980.

``I was undressed, my hands and feet tied up, and I was made to lie flat on my stomach in the burning sun. I was then whipped with a whip made of cowhide, and during the night, when the temperature was cold, they kept pouring cold water all over my body,'' he is quoted as saying in a recent Human Rights Watch/Africa report.

As a United Nations panel on human rights began Tuesday to examine various kinds of ``slavery'' around the world, Moustapha's story proves timely. The month-long session has not included Mauritania by name on its agenda, since topics are listed by themes. But the country will likely come up, says a UN official there. ``The names of certain countries are constantly repeated,'' he adds.

Human Rights Watch/Africa in Washington and Anti-Slavery International in London say slavery persists in Mauritania today, despite being abolished three times. According to the London group, it probably exists in the thousands.

Yet Mohamed Biha, second counselor at the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in Washington, denied that slavery exists in his country in a Monitor telephone interview this week.

Slavery in Mauritania is only part of a larger pattern of abuse of blacks in recent years by the lighter-skinned Arab-Berbers, according to the report by Janet Fleischman, Washington representative of Human Rights Watch/Africa. Other abuses include mass expulsions from the country, seizure of land belonging to blacks, and torture of suspected black dissidents.

``Slaves who attempt to escape are sometimes subjected to severe punishment and torture,'' states the report, which was released in April.

Abdullahi An-Na'im, director of Human Rights Watch/Africa, says ``There has not been any significant change or improvements since the report came out.'' Among the report's allegations:

* Continuation of slavery, especially in the countryside.

* Forced Arabization of non-Muslim blacks.

* Human rights violations against black Mauritanians in the Senegal River Valley, including indiscriminate killing, detention, torture, rape, and beatings by military and security forces.

More than 500 blacks in the military and civil service were killed between late 1990 and early 1991 (many involving ``vicious physical abuse'') allegedly for planning a coup, the report charges.

The rate of killings has diminished since 1992, when presidential elections were held, but blacks continue to face discrimination in obtaining employment, bank loans, and land, the report notes.

Critics allege that Sudan has also had slavery in recent years. Both countries lie on the sociological fault line roughly dividing Arab Africa from black Africa. Colonial-drawn boundaries forced the two races together.

A MAJOR factor behind the alleged repression of blacks is the desire by Arab Mauritanians to ``Arabize'' the country, the report states.

When Senegal and Mauritania repatriated a total of nearly 200,000 citizens between them in 1989, following ethnic slaughters on both sides of the border, Mauritania forced out thousands of black Mauritanians, the report contends.

Another motive for the expulsions is a desire of Arab Mauritanians to take over land: Herdsmen who saw their herds decimated in droughts in the 1970s and '80s began looking with envy at black-owned riverside land, she adds.

Asked about these charges, Mr. Biha said, ``The problem with the report is that the people didn't come to Mauritania.'' But asked why visas to visit his country were repeatedly denied to investigator Fleischman and representatives from Anti-Slavery International, he replied that he did not know.

When asked about confiscation of black lands, he replied ``Many people amplify things.'' On slavery, he stated ``It doesn't exist at all.'' Former slaves benefit from literacy and other programs run by the government, he added.

The UN human rights panel will also examine ``contemporary forms of slavery,'' including forced child labor and prostitution, sale of children, and child pornography.

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