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Jailed Mauritanian anti-slavery activists announce hunger strike

Slavery was made a punishable offence in 2007 but campaigners say the government has failed to acknowledge the extent of its use
Supporters of Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid attend a rally during his presidential bid in Mauritania (AFP)

Three jailed Mauritanian anti-slavery activists went on hunger strike on Monday to protest their treatment by prison authorities, their campaign group said in a statement.

Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, runner-up in the 2014 presidential elections, is serving two years in the central Aleg prison, along with aide Bilal Ramdane and Djiby Sow, a civic and cultural rights campaigner.

Ould Abeid's Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) objected to the way the trio were being treated, denouncing the "abuse against them since their arrival at the Aleg and the squalid conditions [...] which are not in accordance with their status as senior human rights activists."

The IRA vowed "to initiate and organise a series of demonstrations and intensify the peaceful activities of the anti-slavery struggle" in solidarity with the hunger strikers.

The men were jailed for two years on 15 January for "belonging to an illegal organisation, leading an unauthorised rally, and violence against the police."

Seven others who took part in anti-slavery protests in November were acquitted.

Meanwhile, three other activists from the same group, who went on trial on 5 February, will know their fate on Thursday, a judicial source said. 

The public prosecutor has requested they each be handed three-year jail terms and fines of nearly 1,300 euros (nearly $1,500 dollars).

Amnesty International says the activists were arrested while trying to educate people about land rights in the west African country, where descendants of slaves are often forced to give up a portion of their crops to traditional masters.

Mauritanian authorities have accused the IRA of spreading "racist propaganda," and police have shut down its headquarters in the capital Nouakchott.

The country was the last in the world to abolish slavery with a 1981 prohibition, and since 2007 the practice has been officially designated a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison. 

But campaigners say the government has failed in the past to acknowledge the extent of the activity.

Forced labour is a particularly sensitive issue in Mauritania, where anti-slavery charities are very active.

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