Niger's leading anti-slavery campaigner, Ilguilas Weila, has been put in a civilian prison, a member of his family announced on Thursday.
Judicial sources said Weila and five of his colleagues had been accused of "propagating false information on slavery and attempting to raise funds illegally" by seeking money from London-based aid group Anti-Slavery International for the rehabilitation of thousands of slaves due to be released in March.
Weila, the head of prominent anti-slavery organisation Timidria, was arrested with his colleagues last week. They were held at a police station in the Niger capital Niamey until Wednesday when four were released. Weila and one colleague were transferred to prison.
"We condemn the Niger Government's treatment of Ilguilas Weila and demand his immediate and unconditional release," Mary Cunneen, the director of Anti-Slavery International, in a statement.
"Slavery is a significant problem in Niger and we call on the government to work in cooperation with Timidria to achieve an end to this abuse," she said.
Rights groups estimate that there are at least 43,000 people enslaved in Niger, a landlocked West African country with a population of 12 million and rated as the second poorest country in the world by the UN.
Slaves, who are generally inherited but can also be given as gifts, are made to undertake all kinds of menial work for their masters without pay. A child born of a slave mother automatically enters the slave cast, even if he or she is fathered by the slave owner.
Anti-Slavery International have been working with Timidria to fight the practice, and in 2004 after years of lobbying, the government made slavery a crime punishable by a 30-year jail term.
Photo: IRIN/ G. Cranston
|The bracelet on this Nigerien girl's ankle signifies she is a slave|
In March this year, rights groups organised a release ceremony for some 7,000 slaves in the village of Inates, almost 300 km northwest of the capital, but the slaves failed to show up. Anti-Slavery International said a government delegation had visited the slave chief and intimidated him into backing out of the release.
One of the five people arrested with Weila last week was the assistant secretary general of the regional Timidria office that organised the blocked ceremony.
Instead of the ceremony, the government's National Commission for Fundamental Human Rights has organised an information and awareness campaign, but there has been no mass release of slaves.
Judicials sources said that Weila was arrested on suspicion of forging the signature of a local chief in a letter saying that slavery existed in the Inates region.
Local newspaper, The Republican, quoted legal experts saying that Weila was planning on running off with the money Anti-Slavery International raised as an 'integration gift' for the liberated slaves.
But the London-based group said Timidria "categorically denies the fallacious charges" brought against Weila.
It called on Mamadou Tandja, Niger's President and the current head of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), "to guarantee the respect of fundamental human rights and end the intimidation and arbitrary arrest of its citizens".
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions