Mauritania blogger once given death penalty for 'blasphemy' freed

Mkhaitir was initially sentenced to death for comments about Prophet Muhammad and the role of Islam in society.

    Mkhaitir was arrested in 2014 and charged with apostasy over a Facebook post [Courtesy: Human Rights Watch]
    Mkhaitir was arrested in 2014 and charged with apostasy over a Facebook post [Courtesy: Human Rights Watch]

    A blogger in Mauritania who drew international attention after he was sentenced to death over blasphemy has been released, his lawyer and campaign group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said.

    Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkhaitir, 36, was sentenced to death in 2014 over a Facebook post about Islam, but was then given a jail term on appeal. 

    He remained in detention despite having already served the sentence - a situation that sparked a chorus of protests by rights groups

    "[He] was released yesterday from the place where he was under house arrest ... [but] is not completely free in his movement," Mkhaitir's lawyer Fatimata Mbaye told AFP news agency. 

    Mkhaitir "is no longer in Nouakchott", the Mauritanian capital, Mbaye said, without giving further details. 

    RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement: "We are deeply relieved that he has finally been freed after being held for more than five and a half years in almost total isolation." 

    "For nothing more than a social network post, he was subjected to a terrible ordeal that violated a decision by his country's own judicial system. This blogger was francophone Africa's longest-held citizen-journalist," Deloire said.

    RSF shared a video on Twitter celebrating Mkhaitir's release. 

    Mkhaitir's release came in the final days of the presidency of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who had previously argued that freeing Mkhaitir would endanger the blogger as well as the public.

    Death sentence

    Mkhaitir was sentenced to death in December 2014 after he wrote a blog that challenged decisions taken by Prophet Muhammad and his companions during the holy wars in the seventh century.

    The blogger, who belongs to the marginalised blacksmith community, also questioned the use of religion to legitimise ethnic and racial discrimination in Mauritania.

    He repented after being sentenced, prompting an appeal court on November 2017 to downgrade the punishment to a two-year jail term - a decision that sparked protests in the conservative Saharan nation. Mauritania has not carried out a death sentence since 1987.

    The blogger's lawyers said he should have been released immediately, having already spent four years behind bars, but he remained in confinement.

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    On June 20, Abdel Aziz defended Mkhaitir's continued detention, saying it was justified by "his personal security as well as the country's".

    "We know that from the point of the view of the law, he should be freed, but for security reasons, we cannot place the life of more than four million Mauritanians at risk," he said.

    In an open letter published shortly afterwards, 10 rights groups, including RSF, called on Abdel Aziz to use his final weeks in office to end the "illegal detention".

    Abdel Aziz and religious leaders then launched a process of "preparing national opinion" for Mkhaitir's release, under which he formally repented again, on social media.

    On Thursday, Abdel Aziz will hand the presidency over to Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ghazouani, a former general and close ally, after serving a maximum two terms in office.

    Ghazouani won presidential elections on June 22 with 52 percent of the vote, according to official figures disputed by the opposition.

    RSF said the case of Mkhaitir, also spelled Mkheitir, had been the main cause for Mauritania's sharp fall in its World Press Freedom Index.

    Since 2016, Mauritania has plummeted 46 places in the ranking - a decline outstripped only by Tanzania - and is currently placed 94th out of 180 countries. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies