Nouakchott (AFP) - Mauritania became the last country to abolish slavery 34 years ago, but despite ever harsher laws which now declare the practice a crime against humanity, a deeply ingrained resistance has made the shackles hard to break.
A new law adopted last week doubling prison terms for offenders has been hailed as a sign the government of the west African nation is finally getting serious on cracking down on the practice which activists say is widespread despite being made illegal in 2007.
However as three anti-slavery campaigners prepare to appeal a two-year prison sentence Thursday, activists have said the case raises doubts about government's will to implement the new law.
"We feel that there is hypocrisy because (authorities) seem more intent on prosecuting anti-slavery activists than applying the existing law which was perfectly valid and could have been very effective except there was resistance to enforcing it," said Sarah Mathewson of Anti-Slavery International.
Slavery is deeply entrenched in the vast, largely desert nation where light-skinned Berber Arab Moors enslaved local black populations after settling in Mauritania centuries ago.
Slave status is also often passed on from generation to generation, said the Australia-based Walk Free Movement which estimated in its 2014 Global Slavery Index that there were 156,000 slaves in Mauritania, or some four percent of the population.
- Laws a 'smokescreen' -
Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, the leader of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania (IRA) was arrested in January and jailed for two years along with two others for "belonging to a non-authorised organisation, protesting, and incitement to rebellion."
During Ould Abeid's 2014 election campaign to unseat incumbent president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, he said the anti-slavery laws were merely a "smokescreen" to appease the international community.
"Those who are punished are always the anti-slavery activists, slaves are still hoping for freedom, equality."
Mathewson says only one person was convicted under the old law -- and later released on appeal. She said activists had reams of stories of police refusing to investigate complaints and judges throwing out cases "even in the face of testimony and other supporting evidence."
"Often they reclassify it as unpaid labour" rather than slavery, she told AFP.
Mathewson said Anti-Slavery International believes the charges against the IRA activists were trumped up as the government had repeatedly "refused to give them the registration documents they need."
- 'Last vestiges' of slavery -
The law passed on August 11 replaces the 2007 version, declares slavery a "crime against humanity" and criminalises "10 other forms of slavery" aside from conditions involving loss of freedom and work without pay.
The law makes forced marriage and handing a woman over to another man after the death of her husband illegal, and doubles maximum prison terms to 20 years.
"It is inarguably a significant advance, emanating from a clear political will" to eliminate slavery, said Cheikh Ahmed Ould Zehav, a former ambassador and a member of the ruling party.
However he rejects the figures given by the Walk Free movement, saying there were no "quantifiable slaves" in the country.
Mauritania's president Aziz, in power since 2009, said in May that slavery no longer exists in Mauritania, but only what he calls the "last vestiges" of an old practice.
Activists say it is such obscure statements that will make it hard for the new laws to be implemented.
"The government has the potential to lead the way in changing mentalities and right now it is not doing that at all," said Mathewson.
"If the president was giving a very clear message that slavery practices aren't acceptable any longer, that we know it still happens but we need to change it -then we would see a big change."
Boubacar Messaoud, president of the Mauritanian organisation SOS Esclaves (Slaves) welcomed the new law which it said would give victims "every chance" to be freed.
He and other activists have particularly welcomed the fact that anti-slavery organisations will from now on be allowed to present themselves as a civil party in slavery cases.
"One must recognise the willingness of authorities to end slavery," said Alioune Tine from Amnesty International's Africa office.
"But there is resistance both from the masters and the Haratin (slaves) who don't know their rights," he said.
Hammady Ould Lehbouss, a spokesman for the IRA, said that while the law was shaky in some parts, it was an important step "in the fight for freedom - provided it is well applied."