Yemenis start anti-slavery drive

A human rights group's national campaign follows newspaper reports of human bondage in two provinces.

SANA'A // A national campaign to eradicate remnants of slavery was announced on Saturday in Sana'a, following media reports that hundreds of people are still living in bondage in remote provinces in north-western Yemen. The National Organisation for Defending Rights and Freedoms, a Sana'a-based human rights group better known as Hood, said in a statement that it would offer social and humanitarian assistance to the victims of slavery. The first step would be to provide legal help from volunteer lawyers and social dignitaries who would visit the purported slaves and try to persuade their owners to free them or face legal action.

The organisation also called upon all civil society organisations to take part in "efforts to achieve the emancipation of all slaves". Hood urged the government to tackle the economic problems that lead to slavery, a practice abolished in Yemen in 1962. The group recommended building housing complexes to accommodate families caught in slavery. It suggested the complexes should be built on a fertile plot of land and part of it should be singled out for cultivation to help those emancipated from slavery make a living.

"We call upon the state to provide this piece of land as a duty to compensate those people whose rights were neglected and were enslaved with its own awareness and knowledge as well as its local officials in the districts and provinces," the statement said. In case the government does not respond positively to this suggestion, the organisation suggested that donors and charities establish a fund to "solve the economic problems of the victims of slavery and its [government] slackness".

The slavery came to light in reports published by Al Masdar, an independent weekly newspaper, in which it said slavery still exists 48 years after Yemen's revolution, the main objective of which was to liberate people from oppression and injustice. The paper first reported on the issue on June 15 and still continues to run reports in a series. It said there are about 500 enslaved people in Kuaidinah district of Hajja province, north of Sana'a, and al Zohrah district in Hodiedah province, west of the capital. According to the newspaper, sheikhs and members of the local authorities are among slave owners.

Among the victims of the practice who attended the event was Qanaf bin Sayarh, a man in his thirties, who decided seven years ago to rebel against his master and escaped to Saudi Arabia where he worked for about two years. When he came back to Hajja, his master, Hamdi Jubran, wanted to force him back into slavery. Mr bin Sayarh decided to get married, but his master then threatened to force him to divorce his wife.

This threat left Mr bin Sayarh no option but to flee with his wife on their wedding day to al Zohrah. After 25 years of enslavement, Mr bin Sayarh was finally officially freed in 2008 when Abdulrehman Suhail, a local businessman, bought him from his master for about US$2,500 (Dh9,200). Mr Suhail wanted to free Mr bin Sayarh as a means to seek God's forgiveness after killing a person in a car accident.

Any person involved in buying and selling human beings should be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in jail, according to the Yemeni penal code. Mr bin Sayarh's enfranchisement was, however, validated by the local court in Kuaidinah and the fact that a court had allowed a person to be sold was reported by the media in February 2009 leading to Hadi Assaj, the court judge, being summoned by the judicial authorities, who ruled his action was wrong and removed him from office.

Mr Assaj told al Masdar that he decided then to resign from his job and still believes what he did was right. "I approved of the document because the purpose of buying Qanaf was not to enslave him but his liberation," Mr Assaj said. Mr bin Sayarh, a father of three, said his liberation document was taken from him by the attorney general after the reports on his enfranchisement. Despite his liberation, Mr bin Sayarh still fearas for his freedom and that of his children.

"My brother and sister are still enslaved. I am afraid about my freedom as I do not have the document that proves that I am now free; I am afraid that they might take my children and enslave them; we want security," Mr bin Sayarh told The National while attending the press conference. The Yemeni human rights ministry sent a fact-finding committee to the districts, though Ali Tayseer, the deputy minister, said the issue might have been exaggerated.

Mohammed Allaw, the chief of Hood, said he had contacted community leaders in the affected districts, and they had told him the scale of the problem and that the numbers enslaved are bigger than reported by the newspaper.