French state sued over 'slave labour' African rail line
An association of black rights groups on Tuesday sued the French state and the Spie construction group for crimes against humanity over the use of forced labour to build a railway line in Congo in the 1920s.
The 500-kilometre (300-mile) Congo-Ocean line, which links the Atlantic port city of Pointe-Noire to the Republic of Congo capital Brazzaville, was built between 1921 and 1934.
The French colonial administration contracted the Societe de Construction des Batignolles (SCB), which later merged with the Spie group, to build the line.
They used conscripted labour and about 17,000 people are estimated to have died during the construction due to a combination of accidents, poor work conditions and diseases such as malaria.
"Civilians were brought in by force to speed up the construction work," historian Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison told a news conference.
"At least 17,000 people died due to bad travel and work conditions," he said. The workers were brought in from surrounding areas and regions in central Africa further away.
The Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN) said the line had been built by men working under slave-like conditions.
"The forced labour was actually disguised slavery," said the association's president Louis-Georges Tin.
The Atlantic slave trade and slavery in general were recognised as crimes against humanity by France in a law adopted in 2001.
CRAN filed the civil suit at a court in the western Paris suburb of Pontoise.
CRAN lawyer Norbert Tricaud said the organisation had asked the court to appoint experts to evaluate the compensation for victims, adding that the money would be used to finance projects related to the history of slavery.
Forced labour was only outlawed in France in 1946 under a law initiated by an African deputy, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who went on to become the founding president of Ivory Coast.
© 2014 AFP