Mauritania is intensifying its repression against anti-slavery campaigners after torturing and transferring jailed activists to remote desert detention centers.
At least 13 activists said to be members of the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement were sentenced to 15 years in prison for leading former slaves in a protest in Nouakchott.
Although Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, at least one percent of its population, about 43,000 people are still held as slaves. Some researchers have put it up to 20 percent, about 3.4 million people. The West African nation did not criminalize the practice until 2007.
A leading campaigner said the 13 activists were this week tortured and are moved north where they are being held incommunicado and denied medical care.
Lawyers for the activists said Friday they and their families have been denied access.
The EU expressed concerns about allegations of torture and violation of legal procedures leading to their imprisonment.
The 13 activists denied taking part in the protest and their jailing has cast a shadow over the progress made with the jailing of two slave owners this year and the release of activist Brahim Bilal. Bilal had been in prison for 18 months for taking part in an anti-slavery protest.
The Haratines make up the main ‘slave caste’ and are descended from black African ethnic groups along the Senegal River who have historically been raided by White Moors.
Mauritania is slavery’s last stronghold. The White Moors are in control of the economy, government and security forces.
Rights groups say while the practice of slavery is illegal, deeply embedded discriminatory attitudes towards Haratines are the basis of slavery in Mauritania.
Mauritania’s caste-based society means that even those who escaped slavery are still considered to be part of the ‘slave-caste’ and are ostracized by society.