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Page last updated at 16:25 GMT, Wednesday, 27 May 2009 17:25 UK

Anti-slavery gong for Mauritanian

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Boubacar Messaoud explains how he escaped slavery, and why it persists.

A Mauritanian non-governmental organisation run by the son of a slave has won this year's Anti-Slavery International Award.

SOS Esclaves was set up by Boubacar Messaoud, whose father was a slave, and Abdel Nasser Ould Othman Yessa, a former slave-owner.

It is estimated 600,000 Mauritanians - one in five people - live in slavery despite it being outlawed in 2007.

But the government in Nouakchott denies that the practice still exists.

Mr Messaoud travelled to the UK to accept the award at a ceremony in London on Wednesday evening.

He told the BBC World Service: "I, together with a number of my friends, realised that slavery was unjust, and that we couldn't respect the traditional law of Mauritanian society.

SOS Esclaves operate in a very hostile environment where the authorities can be deeply intolerant to anyone they regard as embarrassing them
Aidan McQuade
Anti-Slavery International

"Consequently I consider myself a free and independent man, and I refused to accept this law that traditional Mauritanian society has forced on me since birth."

Mr Messaoud has been arrested three times for speaking out against slavery and continually harassed since SOS Esclaves was founded in 1995.

In April, he was beaten unconsciousness by police at an anti-slavery rally.

Anti-Slavery International said the award was given in recognition of SOS Esclaves' achievements in helping bring about the criminalisation of slavery in Mauritania two years ago.

Aidan McQuade, director of the group, praised the courage of the NGO in continuing to push the cause forward.

MODERN DAY SLAVERY
Bonded labour: 20m people
Early/forced marriage: 51m girls under 18 forced to marry
Forced labour: 12.3m people in compulsory labour
Trafficking: 2-4m people trafficked each year
Child labour: Estimated 200m children affected
Figures from the UN/ILO

"SOS Esclaves operate in a very hostile environment where the authorities can be deeply intolerant to anyone they regard as embarrassing them," he said.

"They continue to put their heads above the parapet to fight against slavery."

He added last August's coup in the country had set back the anti-slavery movement and brought renewed violence against campaigners.

Mauritania was the last country in the world to officially abolish slavery when it passed a decree in 1981 - but it was another 26 years before it was criminalised.

Despite the criminalisation of slavery, the new law has not resulted in a single conviction in the north-west African country.



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