By Inna Lazareva
YAOUNDE, Jan 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Days after his release from jail, one of Mauritania's top anti-slavery campaigners called on Europe to stop doing business with and giving aid to the West African country, which has one of the world's highest rates of slavery.
Biram Dah Abeid, a politician and lawyer, called on the European Union (EU) to follow the lead of the United States, which ended trade benefits for Mauritania in November due to insufficient progress in eradicating forced labour and slavery.
"The most urgent thing is to get British and French governments to go back on their decisions and to withdraw, to block, the financial assistance (they are) sending to the Mauritanian government," said Abeid, the son of freed slaves.
"The British, French, the EU - they shut their eyes to the practice of slavery ... They continue to support the Mauritanian government with money and diplomacy."
Slavery is a historical practice in Mauritania, which became the last country worldwide to abolish it in 1981. Today more than two in every 100 people - 90,000 in total - live as slaves, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index.
The Mauritanian government - regarded as a key ally against Islamic militancy in the region - could not be reached for comment but has previously denied that slavery is widespread and says cases are rare and swiftly dealt with by authorities.
Britain appointed its first ambassador to the mineral-rich desert country last year and London-based BP is developing a large offshore gas project straddling Mauritania and Senegal.
As the former colonial power, France has strong trade relations with Mauritania, and French energy company Total is also exploring offshore blocks.
The EU is one of Mauritania's largest donors, funding millions of dollars of projects aimed at reducing irregular migration, hunger and unemployment.
Abeid, who has been jailed numerous times and won plaudits from the United Nations and United States for his fight against slavery, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that he plans to stand for president for a second time in this year's elections.
He was arrested in August ahead of parliamentary polls and freed on Dec. 31. While behind bars, Abeid was elected to the national assembly, a position that he said he will use to further his campaign to end enslavement.
Abeid estimates that 20 percent of Mauritanians are slaves, the majority of them women and children.
"Mauritanian slavery is based on a very ancient and very chauvinist slavery code, which authorises the rape of women, which authorises the sale of enslaved women (and) child labour," he said from the capital, Nouakchott.
Slavery cuts along racial lines in the Islamic republic on the edge of the Sahara, with black Haratin people typically enslaved as cattle herders and domestic servants by the lighter-skinned elite, known as white Moors.
Abeid's Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) opposition party aims to expose cases of slavery to the authorities, who are then legally obliged to intervene.
There have been only four prosecutions of slave-owners since Mauritania criminalised the practice in 2007 and dozens of cases are languishing in the courts.
Despite the risk of being rearrested, Abeid said that his presidential bid will provide him "with a very rare opportunity" to travel freely around Mauritania and talk to voters.
(Reporting by Inna Lazareva, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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