DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Human rights groups have ramped up pressure on Mauritania to release around 20 anti-slavery campaigners who have been arrested over the past week for demonstrating against the country's traditional practice of human bondage.
Walk Free Foundation, an Australia-based human rights group, joined Amnesty and Anti-Slavery International to launch a global petition on Tuesday for the release of the activists, who are awaiting trial in Nouakchott.
"Given that the protesters are trying to end slavery in the country with the highest prevalence of slavery in the world, the government should be applauding them, not locking them up," Walk Free Foundation campaigner Michael Hayworth told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Walk Free want the immediate and unconditional release of the protesters," Hayworth said.
Next week Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is due to visit neighbouring Senegal for the francophonie, a biannual event, attended by leaders of French-speaking nations, whose role includes promoting peace, democracy and human rights.
The campaigners, including Biram Ould Abeid, an outspoken critic of slavery in the west African nation, were arrested during a peaceful anti-slavery protest in the southwestern town of Rosso and have been charged with inciting hatred under Mauritania's terrorism laws, their lawyer said.
They had asked for permission to demonstrate against slavery and for land rights in the francophone Islamic state, but their request was turned down.
The protesters were stripped, pummelled and trampled by the police, and one, a diabetic, is being denied access to medication, Hamady Lehbouss, a local anti-slavery campaigner, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Slavery is a historical practice in Mauritania and both adults and their children are the property of their masters. Slaves may be bought and sold, rented out and given away as gifts and have no property rights.
The second annual global slavery index compiled by the Walk Free Foundation, released this week, estimated 35.8 million people are living in slavery or slave-like conditions throughout the world.
Mauritania was the worst offender on the global slavery index because around 4 percent of the population, up to 140,000 people, are slaves and because the government is taking no serious measures to end hereditary slavery.
Nobel peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi, speaking at the Trust Women conference in London on Wednesday, said the failure to end slavery was one of the world's biggest sins and called for urgent action to tackle the rise in the number of slaves.
"We have to build a civil rights movement against slavery," Satyarthi told the conference, organised by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Mauritanian authorities were not immediately available for comment.
(Editing by Tim Pearce)
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