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DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — International rights groups are urging Mauritania to release anti-slavery activists, as the United States has announced it will end trade benefits to the West African country over the continuation of slavery.

Amnesty International and 32 other human rights organizations on Thursday called for the release of 35-year-old blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, who remains in custody in an undisclosed location, with limited access to his family and no access to his lawyers.

Mkhaitir was initially arrested in January 2014 after he published a blog that spoke of slavery and discrimination, including against the blacksmith caste, which he belongs to, according to Amnesty International. He was convicted of apostasy and sentenced to death in December 2014. An appeals court later reduced his punishment to two years imprisonment, which he has served. However, he has not yet been released.

More than 150 cases of arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders have been recorded by Amnesty International since 2014. Amnesty called on Mauritania's financial and technical partners to apply more pressure to end slavery in the country.

Early this year, The African Union ruled the West African nation has not enforced its own anti-slavery laws after it passed out a lenient sentence to slave owners.

The U.S. in its statement this month said Mauritania is not making sufficient progress toward combating forced labor, including slavery. As a result, it said it will end Mauritania's trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which permits some duty-free trade.

"Forced or compulsory labor practices like hereditary slavery have no place in the 21st century," said Deputy U.S. Trade Representative C.J. Mahoney. "This action underscores this administration's commitment to ending modern slavery and enforcing labor provisions in our trade laws and trade agreements. We hope Mauritania will work with us to eradicate forced labor and hereditary slavery so that its AGOA eligibility may be restored in the future."

Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery in 1981, though the practice remains. The 2018 Global Slavery Index indicates that 90,000 people still live as slaves in Mauritania.

The Mauritanian government, however, denies that slavery is widespread in the country.

"Mauritania has made great efforts to eradicate the aftermath of slavery and has achieved undoubtedly significant results in this regard," the government said in a statement.

It said the U.S. decision is motivated by misinformation, and that the government hopes that the Trump administration will reconsider its decision.

U.S. imports from Mauritania of fish, fertilizers and mineral fuels were more than $61 million in 2017.

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Francois Patuel, West Africa researcher for Amnesty International, said that while the group cannot take a position on sanctions, "we encourage Mauritania's financial and technical partners to continue to raise the issues of the persistence of slavery, discrimination and reprisals against human rights defenders during political dialogues."

He called on technical and financial partners to call on Mauritania to bring suspected slave owners to justice and "to create a safe and supportive environment for activists."

"Mauritania gets a lot of support because it is considered a key ally on the war on terror, both by the U.S. government and European governments," said Patuel. "We've been telling them to make sure this isn't used as a carte blanche for authorities to do what they want without repercussions."

He said dialogue and pressure are needed to eradicate slavery. Patuel also warned: "To be coherent, the U.S. should stop deporting individuals to Mauritania where they would face discrimination and arrests."

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AP reporter Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania contributed to this report.

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