Washington, D.C.: Today, four U.S. Senators issued a letter to Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz expressing their concern about the continued detention of blogger Mohammed Shaikh Ould Mohammed Ould Mkhaitir. The initiative, led by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), highlights the legal limbo Mkhaitir has been in since November 2017 and calls for his release. Signatories to the letter also include Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Susan Collins (R-ME).
The letter notes that Mkhaitir “remains detained under a type of house arrest, and his final release has not progressed since the November court ruling.” The Senators urge that Mkhaitir “be freed or allowed to leave Mauritania without further delay.”
In December 2014, a Nouadhibou court sentenced Mkhaitir to death for apostasy under article 306 of the criminal code. The sentence was related to a blog post where he denounced the use of religion to legitimize discriminatory practices against the blacksmith caste in Mauritania with which he identifies. However, on November 9, 2017, the Court of Appeals of Nouadhibou commuted Mkhaitir’s death sentence to a two-year prison term and a fine, after recognizing his repentance. A week later, the Mauritanian government approved a draft law which would make the death penalty mandatory for all apostasty-related crimes, regardless of whether the individual repented.
Throughout the legal proceedings, thousands of protesters took to the streets, demanding that Mkhaitir be sentenced to death and executed. He continued to receive death threats when he was in prison. When the appeal court announced the commutation of his sentence in November 2017, Mkhaitir, his lawyers, and the judges had to be escorted from the building after protests erupted in the court room. Shortly thereafter, the government took Mkhaitir into what it has described as “administrative detention”, ostensibly for his own safety. He has had limited contact with the outside world and has been unable to see a doctor for the numerous health problems he endures.
“Mohammed has spent four and a half years separated from his family, uncertain of whether he would be executed for a simple blog post,” said Freedom Now’s Legal Director Kate Barth. “Although he no longer faces a death sentence, his continued detention offers no relief. Freedom Now welcomes this important initiative by Senators Durbin, Brown, Leahy, and Collins and echoes their call for the Mauritanian government to immediately release Mohammed and guarantee his safety.”
In June 2017, in response to a petition filed by Freedom Now and Dechert LLC, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found Mkhaitir’s initial detention to be in violation of international law. More recently, on May 8, 2018, a group of six UN experts expressed grave concern over Mkhaitir’s continued detention and called for his immediate release.