US condemns sentencing of anti-slavery activists in Mauritania

People hold a banner reading "No to slavery" during a demonstration against discrimination in Nouakchott on April 29, 2015

The United States on Saturday condemned Mauritania’s imprisonment and alleged torture of protesters, including anti-slavery activists.

A court in the west African country handed 13 members of a group fighting hereditary slavery prison sentences on Thursday ranging from three to 15 years.

“The United States is gravely concerned about the harsh prison terms,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. “We are also dismayed by specific accusations that some of these individuals were subjected to abuse and torture while in detention following their arrests.”

All 13 activists say they were tortured in prison ahead of the court case.

Lawyers for the group denounced Thursday’s verdict as “a travesty of justice.”

“The United States urges an immediate and comprehensive investigation into all credible allegations of torture, public release of the findings of this investigation, and appropriate prosecution of any individuals whom the investigation finds were responsible for such acts,” the State Department said, adding that Mauritania committed itself to fighting torture in its revised 2012 constitution.

“The United States strongly encourages Mauritania to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedoms of expression and association, for all Mauritanians.”

The activists were arrested last month after a protest in a Nouakchott slum community, which was being forcibly relocated as Mauritania prepared for an Arab League summit.

The neighborhood was home to many so-called Haratin — a “slave caste” under a hereditary system of servitude whose members are forced to work without pay as cattle herders and domestic servants.

A court in the capital Nouakchott found the defendants guilty of “use of violence,” but Amnesty International has said they were falsely accused because of their advocacy work.

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