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When radical Islamists in northern Mali began chopping off the hands of accused thieves and stoning unwed couples to death, the world was shocked by the brutality. But few noticed exactly who the victims were.

The first to be persecuted were Mali's most vulnerable people: the descendants of slaves. As northern Mali falls under the control of Islamist and separatist rebels, traditional forms of discrimination and slavery are making a disturbing return, leaving thousands of people in the renewed domination of former slave masters.

An estimated 800,000 people in Mali are descended from slaves. Most are darker-skinned people who were traditionally enslaved by Berber-descended Tuareg nomads. Similar forms of slavery are also practised in Niger and Mauritania.

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Despite an official ban on the practice, about 200,000 Malians are still the "property" of traditional masters, according to human rights activists. Most are forced to work without compensation as herdsmen, shepherds, or household servants. (They are often told by their masters that they will be paid when they "reach heaven.") And in the aftermath of the northern rebellion this year, the number of slaves is rising again.

Many are enslaved by former masters who have exploited the growing chaos in Mali's north to reassert their traditional practices. Others have been targeted by Islamist radicals who seek to impose their harsh interpretation of sharia law.

Alhader Ag Almahmoud, a 30-year-old livestock farmer of slave descent, was accused of cattle theft on flimsy evidence in August. He was subjected to a 10-minute trial and then strapped to a chair in a public square, where crowds watched as his right hand was amputated with a knife. Islamist militants chanted "God is great" as they sawed through his wrist. The cattle were later recovered; they had not been stolen.

"He was selected because he was poor and considered to be descended from slaves," said Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, president of Temedt, an organization that fights slavery in Mali.

"He was a silent member of this voiceless community, and that's why he was selected."

The ECOWAS bloc of West African states agreed Sunday to send a 3,300-troop intervention force into Mali to confront the Islamists, although it may take up to six months before they are deployed.

Since the Islamist rebels seized power in northern Mali in April, many people in the slave-descended community have been kidnapped, stoned to death, whipped, or forced into labour, Mr. Ag Idbaltanat said in an interview. "People are really scared of being punished. They're easy targets. Because they're vulnerable and marginalized, they're not going to fight back. They have no weapons."

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About 250,000 refugees have fled from northern Mali to neighbouring countries since the rebellion began, and a further 200,000 have sought shelter in southern Mali or other places in the country. But the vast majority of the slave descendants are too poor to leave the north, according to Mr. Ag Idbaltanat.

"They're in a desperate situation," he said. "They're stuck in the north, and they have no access to the food distribution. They're suspected by both sides. The jihadis suspect them of giving information to the Malian army, and the army suspects them of giving information to the jihadis."

Women descended from slaves are often moderate Muslims who don't traditionally wear veils, but now they are punished by the Islamists for failing to wear veils, or for failing to stay inside their homes. Lashes are among the most common form of punishment.

Children, too, are victimized. In one community alone, 18 children of slave descent were kidnapped in August and forced into traditional labour, Mr. Ag Idbaltanat said. His organization, which has more than 30,000 members in the slave-descended community, was able to rescue two of the kidnapped children and return them to their parents.

Mr. Ag Idbaltanat, who is married to a Canadian and will be speaking to Canadian audiences later this month, was given the annual Anti-Slavery Award last month in Britain by an activist group, Anti-Slavery International.

His organization was making progress in eradicating slavery in northern Mali, but the progress was reversed when the rebels seized power this year. The traditional slave masters "feel they have impunity now," he said. "There's no government in the north, and those in power now are their relatives."

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Mr. Ag Idbaltanat, himself a descendant of slaves, has been fighting slavery since 1979, after he saw how former slaves were routinely subjected to discrimination and even had their land and cattle seized by their traditional masters. He helped create the group Temedt, "solidarity," in 2006 after a man of slave descent was murdered by a traditional master.

Since then, his group has helped to liberate dozens of enslaved people. It has provided legal and humanitarian aid to the victims of slavery, and it has lobbied for laws to criminalize slavery.

Although slavery is officially banned by Mali's constitution, there are still no laws to prohibit the practice.

"Our work hasn't been enough, and it hasn't had enough official support to solve the problem," Mr. Ag Idbaltanat said. "It's an archaic practice, but it has a long history, and it won't change overnight."

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