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On the way to freedom, Niger's slaves stuck in limbo

7,000 slaves in Niger were set to be freed last Saturday - until the government denied slavery even existed there.

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More than 7,000 slaves owned by Arissal Ag Amdague, a Tuareg tribal chief, were due to be released at a desert ceremony last Saturday in the village of In At├Ęs, 175 miles northwest of Niger's capital, Niamey.

A new law that came into effect last year was supposed to finally punish masters, who had long held slaves with little hassle from the government. Anti-Slavery International, the world's oldest human rights group, billed the event as unlike anything seen since the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

Instead, no one was freed.

Despite the government's positive move to announce the new law and its willingness to apply it, it sent out mixed messages later by saying slavery no longer exists in Niger. This contradicts eyewitness reports from international and local rights groups, and a signed statement from Chief Arissal promising to free his "enslaved people," a copy of which Anti-Slavery International has in its possession.

Slavery is widespread across the Sahel Desert region, in countries that include Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Chad, and Sudan, according to rights groups. Anti-Slavery International (www.antislavery.org) and Timidria, a local rights group, calculate there are at least 43,000 slaves still in Niger. Slavery dates back centuries but was outlawed at independence from France in 1960, however the Constitution carried no penalty, and the postcolonial administrations turned a blind eye.

But a May 2003 change in Niger's penal code, which came into force a year later, criminalized slavery and introduced a 30-year maximum jail term. It was the fear of imprisonment that forced Chief Arissal initially to agree to free his slaves.

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