Washington, D.C. – Freedom Now is pleased to announce the release of blogger Mohammed Shaikh Ould Mohammed Ould Mkhaitir after nearly four years in prison for writing a blog post.
“The long awaited release of Mohammed is a great relief. It is unconscionable that Mauritania was prepared to execute a man for expressing an opinion and it is appalling that his appeal process dragged on for nearly three years,” said Freedom Now Legal Director Kate Barth. “Now that Mohammed is finally free, we urge President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to publicly guarantee Mohammed’s safety, given the thousands of protestors who have called for his death.”
Prior to his arrest, Mkhaitir worked as an engineer for a mining company in northern Mauritania. In late December 2013, he published a blog post which provided a social critique and commentary on the nexus between religion, racism, and discrimination. Mkhaitir had no previous history as an activist or dissident and the blog post was his first published article.
On January 2, 2014, Mkhaitir was arrested and charged with apostasy. He spent nearly a year in prison before he was sentenced to death by firing squad on December 24, 2014.
The two-day trial included several procedural irregularities. The court prohibited any discussion of the actual contents of the blog post and ignored Mkhaitir’s multiple expressions of repentance, made both shortly after his arrest and in the courtroom during trial, that he had not intended to insult Islam. (Under Mauritanian law, such repentance should have disqualified Mkhaitir from receiving a death sentence.) Instead, the court allowed the prosecution to focus on Facebook posts Mkhaitir wrote in 2010 in which he suggested that being a nonbeliever was better than being a hypocrite. Death threats were so prevalent during the time leading up to the trial that three of Mkhaitir’s lawyers resigned.
On November 15, 2016, the Supreme Court of Mauritania on appeal was scheduled to deliver its decision in Mkhaitir’s case. However, a fatwa was issued against Mkhaitir by an influential group of local clerics, and in response hundreds of protestors surrounded the court to demand Mkhaitir’s execution. Consequently, the Supreme Court postponed the verdict and Mkhaitir’s lawyer, Fatimata M’Baye, was escorted by police to ensure her safety. The Supreme Court finally issued a ruling on January 31, 2017, which set aside the lower court’s decision and sent the case back to a new panel of judges from the same court for a new hearing. However, that hearing was delayed for nearly a year.
Freedom Now submitted a legal petition to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and Allegation Letters to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers and the African Commission Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information on Mkhaitir’s behalf. In June 2017, the Working Group issued an opinion finding Mkhaitir’s detention to be in violation of international law and calling for his immediate release. In November 2016, Freedom Now joined the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters without Borders, and PEN America in appealing directly to President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to intervene in the case.