For four long years, Mohammed Shaikh Ould Mohammed Ould Mkhaitir has been stuck in limbo in his home country of Mauritania, uncertain if he would face the death penalty for publishing a simple blog post. And although execution is off the table, his life is still in danger.
In late December 2013, Mohammed, a young engineer published a blog post in which he condemned Mauritanians’ use of religion as an excuse for caste discrimination. Mauritania, a highly-stratified society with one of the highest incidences of slavery in the world, continues to struggle with rampant abuse against members of lower castes. The privileged few who have significant influence on Mauritanian society and government have done their best to quash any discontent with this vastly inequitable system.
Within days of the publication of Mohammed’s blog post local religious leaders condemned its contents as being offensive to Islam and mass protests broke out, with hundreds of people calling for his execution. He was arrested on January 3, 2014 and charged with apostasy. The trial court was all too willing to bend to public pressure and on December 24, 2014, after nearly a year spent in pre-trial detention and a trial replete with due process violations, Mohammed was sentenced to death by firing squad. When the verdict was read, Mohammed fainted in the court room.
Mauritania has not carried out an execution in three decades, making the harsh sentence levied on Mohammed quite unexpected. Moreover, by Mauritanian law itself, Mohammed’s sentence should have been limited to two years in prison because he repented of his alleged apostasy–fervently, publicly, and repeatedly. It was public sentiment that condemned this young man to death.
The draconian sentence did not go unnoticed by the world; international and domestic human rights groups, supranational institutions and a number of governments protested loudly against such grave punishment for free speech. On June 23, 2017, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a legal opinion, concluding that Mohammed’s detention was arbitrary and in violation of international law and called for his immediate release.
Soon, and despite a fatwa issued against Mohammed, it became clear that the judiciary was also uncomfortable with executing a man based on a single blog post which he had denounced. For three years Mohammed’s case bounced around the Mauritanian court system until finally, on November 9, 2017, the Court of Appeals quashed the death sentence and sentenced him to two years of time served and a small fine.
When the news broke that the Court of Appeals had ordered Mohammed’s release, human rights advocates around the world were ecstatic. Unfortunately, the celebration was premature; despite the sentence having been quashed nearly two months ago, Mohammed still remains in custody. What’s worse, he has disappeared.
Even while assuring Mohammed’s family, his lawyers and the diplomatic community that he is being held in protective custody, the government refuses to disclose his whereabouts or provide any information about plans for his release. While it may be true that Mohammed’s life might be at risk should he be released into Mauritanian society unguarded, the government’s assertion that the continued detention of a man who has already spent four years behind bars is for his own safety rings false. Mohammed could be given police protection while a free man, he could be relocated within the country and he may even have international refuge avenues available to him.
Mohammed’s continued detention, in violation of international and now domestic law, is a shameful attack on the rights of all Mauritanian citizens—and all people everywhere—to freely express their opinions and to be free from arbitrary imprisonment. So this week, as we move forward into a new year and as Mohammed faces the start of his fifth year in custody, we call on the government of Mauritania to respect the ruling of its own court and release Mohammed. In doing so, the government would show its people and the world that it is strong enough to pursue justice and human rights in lieu of caving to mob mentalities.