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GENEVA (Reuters) - Slavery is still being practiced in Mauritania, even though the West African country made it a crime against humanity last year, a U.N. human rights watchdog said on Thursday.
Despite becoming the last country worldwide to abolish slavery, in 1981, Mauritania has the highest prevalence worldwide of slavery per head of population, according to the Global Slavery Index 2013.
Some 151,000 people, almost 4 percent of its population, are thought to be slaves, according to the index by the anti-slavery charity Walk Free Foundation. Estimates by other groups put it at up to 20 percent.
"Mauritania is one of those few countries in which slavery still exists, in which slavery is still practiced. The government seems to deny it, at the same time there is an Anti-Slavery Act," Cornelis Flinterman, a Dutch member on U.N. Human Rights Committee told a news briefing.
"But it's very difficult for those who are held as slaves to bring complaints. Criminal cases do not seem to take place."
The most common is chattel slavery, meaning that slave status is passed down through generations, the slavery index said.
The U.N. committee of 18 independent experts works to uphold compliance with an international treaty on civil and political rights that bans slavery, servitude and forced labor. Mauritania is among 167 states to have ratified the pact.
It called on Mauritania, which straddles black and Arab Africa, to guarantee the legislation was applied effectively and to give victims sufficient recourse. Slavery was made a crime in Mauritania in 2007 and a crime against humanity in 2012.
Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Khattra, Mauritania's human rights commissioner, who led his country's delegation to the meeting reviewing the Islamic republic's rights record, said slavery was prohibited, considered as a crime against humanity and vigorously punished.
The U.N. experts also voiced concern at torture, racial discrimination and the country's constitution, which says that Islamic law takes precedence over other laws.
"We were very pleased that Mauritania has enacted a moratorium on the death penalty, but still the death penalty is on the books for such crimes as homosexuality and apostasy," Flinterman said.
The death penalty was also given for adultery, in violation of the international treaty, he said.
Mauritania's record was reviewed along with those of four other countries - Bolivia, Djibouti, Mozambique and Uruguay - at the committee's 3-week session.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alison Williams