The government modestly increased anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. The 2003 Law Against Trafficking in Persons prohibits almost all forms of trafficking and prescribes penalties of five to 10 years imprisonment, which are sufficiently stringent and exceed those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The 2015 anti-slavery law criminalizes hereditary slavery and prescribes sufficiently stringent penalties of five to 20 years imprisonment, which exceed penalties for other serious crimes. The law also includes prohibitions on forced marriage. The 2015 anti-slavery law mandated the creation of regional anti-slavery courts with exclusive jurisdiction over trafficking and slavery cases, and the government opened and made operational all three courts during the reporting period; the courts are located in Nema, Nouakchott, and Nouadhibou. The courts lacked the staff, funding, and resources to investigate and prosecute trafficking and slavery crimes throughout their regions, and none of the appointed judges were specifically trained to address the unique challenges of investigating slavery cases, including how to prevent slaveholders from intimidating victims and victims from withdrawing their cases.
The anti-slavery courts received 47 cases for investigation under the 2015 anti-slavery law involving at least 53 suspects and prosecuted and convicted two slaveholders, compared with two investigations and no prosecutions or convictions the previous reporting period. The Nema anti-slavery court completed one investigation from the previous reporting period that led to the conviction of two defendants for slaveholding; the court sentenced them to five years imprisonment, with one year to be served and four years suspended. Each defendant also had to pay a fine of 100,000 Mauritanian ouguiya (MRO) ($282) and one million MRO ($2,817) in damages to each of the two victims. These were the government’s first convictions under the 2015 anti-slavery law and its first convictions for a trafficking or slavery offense since 2011; with the suspension of most of the prison time for both convicted slaveholders, however, the judge minimized the deterrent effect of these law enforcement measures. Forty-six slavery investigations remained pending among the three regional courts, including 17 cases from the previous reporting period. The special brigade for minors identified more than 649 child slavery and child forced begging victims in 2016; the government did not report launching investigations into suspected traffickers or slaveholders in any of the cases. During the reporting period, the Nouakchott Court of Appeals ruled in favor of two former slaves who were appealing the leniency of their slaveholder’s 2011 sentence. While the court upheld the original prison sentence of two years with release after three months, which the defendant had already served, it increased the victims’ compensation, ordering the defendant to pay a total of 2,248,000 MRO ($6,332).
Efforts to address hereditary slavery remained weak. Despite its directive to do so, Tadamoun did not submit any criminal claims on behalf of victims during the reporting period. The 2015 anti-slavery law authorizes human rights associations that have been legally established and operating for at least five years to bring forward criminal charges on behalf of victims; however, this authorization bars one of the country’s leading anti-slavery NGOs—which the government has not legally recognized—from bringing forward such claims. During the reporting period, reports emerged that authorities tortured members of this anti-slavery organization while they were in police custody for alleged participation in a riot; several of the members were acquitted of all charges or had convictions overturned, and some advocates claimed the alleged torture was intended to discourage them from future anti-slavery advocacy. During the previous reporting period, the government had sentenced three activists to two years imprisonment for anti-slavery advocacy. In May 2016, the government reduced the sentences of the two activists who were still in prison from two years to one year imprisonment—after they had already served 18 months—and released them from prison, but it did not overturn their convictions. The government continued investigations from previous reporting periods into a tribal leader and former military colonel for alleged complicity in human trafficking; it did not report any prosecutions or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking offenses. Serious corruption and complicity concerns remained, including reports of police, prosecutors, and judges who refused to investigate and try cases of hereditary slavery and heavy governmental influence over the judiciary, which restricted its independence. Reports persisted that prosecutors and judges often prosecuted alleged slave owners for lesser offenses to avoid bringing a slavery case to trial, calling into question the political will of law enforcement and judiciary officials to address such crimes. Despite the government’s recognition that law enforcement and judicial officials lacked critical understanding of how to conduct trafficking investigations and the 2015 anti-slavery law, it did not provide training during the reporting period.