Antislavery activists jailed. Niger says: What slaves?

Hundreds of protesters marched through the streets of Niger's capital Thursday, chanting antigovernment slogans and demanding the release of two human rights campaigners.

The demonstration passed peacefully, but organizers angry that antislavery activists Ilguilas Weila and Alassane Biga were not freed threatened to stage larger nationwide protests in the West African nation next weekend.

The pair were arrested in April on charges of attempted fraud after Niger's government accused them of tricking international donors into handing over cash for nonexistent slave-release programs. Both men, senior members of Timidria, an antislavery group in Niger, deny the charges.

"We are very concerned for their welfare, and categorically refute the charges against them," said Romana Cacchioli, Africa Program Officer for London-based AntiSlavery International. "The Government's actions appear to be a concerted campaign not only to discredit their reputation and the work of Timidria, but also to silence efforts to end slavery in the country."

In March, a ceremony planned to celebrate the release of 7,000 of Niger's estimated 43,000 slaves was canceled at the last minute when the government denied the practice of slavery existed.

This was despite a change in the law in 2003 which officially banned slavery and imposed a 30-year sentence for owning slaves.

Campaigners say slaves do all domestic work for their masters, including cooking, cleaning, and herding animals.

The estimated 1,000 protesters at Thursday's march were stopped from handing a petition to President Mamadou Tandja that demanded the release of Messrs. Weila and Biga, local radio reporter Idy Baraou told the Monitor by phone from Niamey.

"It was peaceful, but these guys are angry and they have promised to come back next Saturday with more people, and things could be different then," Mr. Baraou said.

Antislavery International says President Tandja wants to quash any talk of slavery at a time when he is head of the West African economic bloc ECOWAS.

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