NOUAKCHOTT– A Mauritanian court has sentenced in two separate cases two people, a woman and a man, respectively to 10 years and 20 years in prison for slavery. Human rights organisations say this is a first in sentences on slavery cases.

The first of the two cases involved three girls, the oldest of whom is now about 29 years old, and a 60-year-old woman who had enslaved them since childhood.

They contacted a local anti-slavery organization in 2011, which helped them file a complaint but the case dragged on for seven years.

The Nouadhibou criminal court sentenced Rivaa Mint Mahmad to 10 years in prison and the equivalent of Euros 5,600 fine for slave practices. She was immediately taken to prison.

In the second case, two men, a father and his son were prosecuted for enslaving an entire family. The father died a few months ago, and the son, Hamoudi Ould Saleck was tried in absentia and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Both were accused of “reducing to slavery” a family, two of whom were children.

What has just happened is extraordinary, said Elid Mohameden M’Barek, the lawyer for the civil parties, speaking of a first in the judicial history of Mauritania.

A new anti-slavery law in 2015 doubled the prison term for perpetrators to 20 years, but in its second prosecution a year later Mauritania gave two slave owners only five-year sentences well below what is stipulated by the law.

Slavery was outlawed in 1981 but 1% of the population are still living in bondage, human rights groups say.

The country has jailed more anti-slavery activists than slave owners, rights groups say.

Rights group Amnesty International welcomed the convictions. It estimates that 43,000 people were still living in slavery in Mauritania.

It said that the courts had received 47 cases for investigation involving 53 suspects.

Earlier this year, the African Union urged Mauritania to issue harsher sentences for the crime.