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Mauritania charges anti-slavery activists over slum riot

Slavery is illegal in Mauritania but cattle herders and domestic staff are often forced to work without pay, while abolitionists are 'harassed'
Protesters hold a banner reading "No to slavery" during a demonstration against discrimination in Nouakchott on April 29, 2015. (AFP)

Twenty-three anti-slavery activists in Mauritania were charged Tuesday with public order offences and belonging to a banned abolitionist movement over their involvement in a slum riot last month.

Hereditary systems of slavery still exist in Mauritania despite an official ban, where those belonging to "slave castes" are forced to work as cattle herders and domestic servants without pay.

The members of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) were arrested on June 29 during clashes when police tried to clear a slum that was home to many "Haratin" -- a traditional slave caste -- in the capital Nouakchott.

A dozen police were injured.

A judicial source told AFP the IRA members were charged with inciting violence, belonging to a banned group and aggression against security forces.

Their trial will begin in a month, the source added.

Police used tear gas and batons against supporters of the activists as they called publicly for their release on Monday, and arrested seven of them.

In August 2015, Mauritania adopted a new law making slavery a "crime against humanity" and doubling the maximum prison term to 20 years.

The country in December also set up three specialist slavery courts and decreed that March 6 would be national day for the fight against slavery.

US Senator Ben Cardin called last week for the activists' release, saying it was "no secret that Mauritania has one of the worst records in the world when it comes to the scourge of modern slavery."

"Instead of arresting or harassing those who advocate for universal human rights, (I) recommend they use more of their resources to end slavery in their own country," he said.

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