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Anti-Slavery Activists Detained in Mauritania

FILE - Mauritanian anti-slavery protesters march to demand the liberation of imprisoned abolitionist leader Biram Ould Abeid in Nouakchott, May 26, 2012.

Human rights groups are calling on Mauritania to release nearly a dozen anti-slavery activists arrested during the past month.

Modern day slavery persists in the West Africa country and may affect more than 35 million people globally. Such slavery comes in many forms - including child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking.

It is big business. The International Labor Organization estimates it generates in excess of $150 billion in illegal profits annually.

Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1981. But more than 30 years later, it remains a problem.

The 2014 Global Slavery Index revealed that Mauritania has the highest incidence of slavery in the world with four percent of the population living as slaves - a hereditary status based on social caste. The group says while Mauritania has the legal structures in place to criminalize slavery, it does not enforce those laws.

“We have this extraordinary situation where the Mauritanian authorities have a technical road map, a plan of action for slavery. But a number of the elites across the government, in the judiciary, law enforcement, the ministers they themselves are directly involved in the ownership of slaves,” explained Jonathan Lis, Program coordinator for the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.

The Mauritanian government and working class are comprised of mostly white Moors of Arab-Berber descent. While 70 percent of the rest of the population are made up of black Moors, or Haratin - who have little access to education and influence - and some of who made up the slave class.

Ba Aliou Coulibaly, a member of SOS Esclaves, an international anti-slavery organization, said his organization’s work to end modern slavery faced challenges from all sectors of society due to steeped traditions and economic dependence.

“The slaves, most of them, are still economically-dependent on their former masters. So this hinders them to get rid of this situation, even though they know it goes against the dignity of humanity,” said Coulibaly.

Lis told VOA that slavery in Mauritania was in many ways more difficult to end than physical ownership.

“This sort of idea of psychological slavery, psychological bonds. People aren't necessarily kept in shackles,” he said.

In November, close to a dozen anti-slavery activists were arrested in Mauritania while on an educational campaign through the country led by the IRA.

The activists are being held in the southwest city of Rosso, near the Senegalese border. They face charges of inciting violence, meeting without a permit, and resisting arrest. They are being denied phone calls and visits and it is not clear when, or if, they will appear in court. If charged and convicted, these activists could face three months to six years in prison.

West African researcher for Amnesty International, Gaetan Mootoo, said the situation was not surprising in a society where slavery was deeply embedded and the government needed to do more than pay lip service to ending the practice.

“I think the authorities should regularly make statements to condemn the practices and at the same time to increase the judicial means to act when cases are given to them,” said Mootoo.

In 2007, the Mauritanian government passed an anti-slavery law that considered slavery a crime. Since then only one person has been convicted.

The Global Slavery Index is calling on Mauritania to amend that law to allow human rights groups to act as the legal agent in slavery cases, allow non-governmental groups to help victims file complaints as a way to overcome structural barriers, launch national awareness campaigns and establish victim supports such as emergency shelters for victims of modern slavery.