Washington D.C.: In response to a petition filed by Freedom Now and Dechert LLC, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion finding the detention of blogger Mohammed Shaikh Ould Mohammed Ould Mkhaitir by the Government of Mauritania in violation of international law. The Working Group—an independent panel of five human rights experts from around the world—called for Mr. Mkhaitir’s release.

Prior to his arrest, Mr. Mkhaitir worked as an engineer for a mining company in northern Mauritania. In late December 2013, he published a blog post that provided a social critique and commentary on the nexus between religion, racism, and discrimination. Mr. Mkhaitir had no previous history as an activist or dissident and the blog post was his first published article.

On January 2, 2014, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Mkhaitir from receiving a death sentence.) Instead, the court allowed the prosecution to focus on Facebook posts Mr. Mkhaitir made 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 Mr. Mkhaitir’s lawyers resigned.

On November 15, 2016, the Supreme Court of Mauritania on appeal was scheduled to deliver its decision in Mr. Mkhaitir’s case. However, a fatwa was issued against Mr. Mkhaitir by an influential group of local clerics, and in response hundreds of protestors surrounded the court to demand Mr. Mkhaitir’s execution. Consequently, the Supreme Court postponed the verdict and Mr. Mkhaitir’s lawyer, Fatimata M’Baye, was escorted by police to ensure her safety. Eventually in January 2017, the Supreme Court referred the case back to the Court of Appeals, the same court which upheld Mr. Mkhaitir’s death sentence. The Court of Appeals has yet to set a date for a new hearing.

In its opinion, the United Nations Working Group found that the Government of Mauritania had committed numerous violations of international law in arresting and detaining Mr. Mkhaitir, including the denial of his rights to a fair trial, freedom of expression, and freedom of belief. In addition to affirming Mr. Mkhaitir’s right to release, the Working Group stated that he should be compensated.

“We welcome the Working Group’s opinion,” said Kate Barth, Legal Director of Freedom Now. “It is appalling that he has been sentenced to death for expressing an opinion and unconscionable that his appeal process has dragged on for more than 18 months with no resolution in sight. We call on the Government of Mauritania to respect the Working Group’s opinion and immediately release Mr. Mkhaitir.”

Freedom Now also petitioned the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on Mr. Mkhaitir’s behalf. 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.