By Nellie Peyton
DAKAR, March 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Anti-slavery activists in Mauritania are increasingly being arrested and protests banned as the state tightens restrictions on human rights groups, activists and organisations said on Thursday.
Slavery is a historical practice in Mauritania, which became the last country worldwide to legally abolish it in 1981.
The West African country has one of the highest rates of slavery in the world, with 1 in 100 people living as slaves, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index. But the government has frequently cracked down on people who speak out against it.
"The repression is getting worse and worse," said Boubacar Messaoud, president of SOS Esclaves, one of Mauritania's oldest anti-slavery groups.
"You have to have courage to work on slavery, because it's not easy," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Since 2014, Amnesty International has documented 168 arrests of human rights defenders and at least 20 groups whose peaceful protests were broken up by force, it said in a report.
Some of the activists were tortured and several are still locked up, it said.
Mauritania's government spokesman denied that the state restricted the activities of human rights groups or made arbitrary arrests.
He said only "unlawful and unregistered organisations that... provoke riots, chaos and insecurity" would be brought to justice.
"The human rights organisations operating in accordance with Mauritanian law exercise their activities freely," Mohamed Lemine Ould Cheikh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
But human rights groups said even their daily activities were obstructed.
Groups are required to request authorization for each event they organise, and it is usually denied, said Mamadou Sarr, head of Mauritania's national forum of human rights organisations.
"It's a very worrying trend," said Amnesty's Francois Patuel, who researched the repression of human rights groups since President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was re-elected in 2014.
"This is going to prevent Mauritania from actually addressing the issues of discrimination and slavery that are so prevalent in the country."
Groups addressing slavery and discrimination are especially targeted because powerful interest groups, including some religious leaders, seek to continue the practice, Patuel said.
The issue cuts along racial lines, with black descendents of ethnic groups along the Senegal river typically enslaved by lighter-skinned Mauritanians.
Tensions are likely to increase as Mauritania heads toward presidential elections scheduled for 2019, Patuel said. (Reporting by Nellie Peyton, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org))
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