The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has joined 31 NGOs in calling on Mauritania to release anti-slavery blogger, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkheitir, who remains in detention despite an appeal Court’s decision one year ago tomorrow to commute his death sentence.
The group, which includes, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom Now, the Forum des organisations nationales des droits de l’Homme en Mauritanie and the IHEU, is marking the year anniversary by drawing the international community’s attention to its ongoing campaign for Mkheitir’s release and protection.
Mkheitir, 35, remains in custody in an undisclosed location, with limited access to his family and no access to his lawyers, after authorities failed to implement an appeal court ruling for his release granted on 9 November 2017. His physical and mental health are deteriorating as result of his prolonged detention; he is currently believed to be in need of urgent medical care.
Mkheitir was initially arrested on 2 January 2014 after he published a blog in December 2013 that spoke of slavery and discrimination, including against the ‘blacksmith’ caste, to which he belongs.
Following the publication of the blog, mass protests calling for Mkheitir’s execution for ‘blasphemy’ — one of which the Mauritanian President addressed sympathetically — took place across the country.
Charged with apostasy
Mkheitir repented on several occasions during his interrogation by police and in a written statement dated 11 January 2014. His trial started on 23 December 2015 and he was charged with apostasy and insulting the Prophet Muhammad, before being sentenced to death the following day.
On 9 November 2017, an appeal court reduced his death sentence to two years in prison, which he had already served, and a fine. In March 2018, the Mauritanian Minister of Justice Mokhtar Malal Dia said in an interview that “the blogger Mkheitir is still held somewhere in Mauritania’’.
In May, Mauritanian authorities informed the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that Mkheitir was in “administrative detention for his own safety”.
For nearly a year, his lawyer has repeatedly requested to visit him, but she has still yet to receive an answer from the Minister of Justice.
“Rather than respecting the court order, authorities have refused to acknowledge the whereabouts of Mkheitir and deprived him of contact with the outside world,” said Fatimata Mbaye, human rights defender and Mkheitir’s domestic lawyer.
“This amounts to incommunicado detention, a serious human rights violation. Authorities should end this arbitrary detention, release M’kheitir and guarantee his safety.”
The United Nations has on several occasions criticized the detention and death sentence of Mohamed Mkheitir. In June 2017, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Mkheitir’s trial was unfair, his detention arbitrary, and that Mauritania was in violation of international law.
In May 2018, six UN human rights experts expressed grave concerns about Mkheitir’s continued detention.
IHEU Director of Advocacy, Elizabeth O’Casey, commented, “What is particularly egregious here, is not only the complete denial of Mkheitir’s basic right to expression, but that this denial is against a man seeking to exercise this right in order to highlight and improve the rights situation of fellow citizens in Mauritania (people denied their right to autonomy, freedom and land rights) and highlight the injustice of the caste system.
“The writings of people like Mkheitir are crucial in the role they play in holding the government to account in terms of its human rights obligations.
“His continued detention demonstrates serious contempt for the rule of law by the Mauritanian authorities. And laws outlawing apostasy and blasphemy go in diametric opposition to all international legal standards that Mauritania is supposed to be committed to.”
The Mauritanian National Assembly passed a law on April 2018 that replaces article 306 of the Criminal Code and makes the death penalty mandatory for anyone convicted of “blasphemous speech” and acts deemed “sacrilegious”.
The new law eliminates the possibility under article 306 of substituting prison terms for the death penalty for certain apostasy-related crimes if the offender promptly repents. The law also extends the scope of application of the death penalty to “renegade acts.” The timing of the enactment of the law just a few months after the court of appeal ordered Mkheitir’s release appears to be related to his case.
Mauritania has ratified numerous international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights that protect the right to life.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee will conduct a review of Mauritania’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2019.