Mauritania frees blogger jailed for ‘blasphemy’

Cheikh Ould Mohamed Mkheitir the anti Slavery blogger
Cheikh Ould Mohamed Mkheitir the anti Slavery blogger

Mauritania has released a blogger who drew international attention after being accused of blasphemy, his lawyer and the campaign group RSF said Tuesday.

Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir, 36, had been initially sentenced to death but was then given a jail term on appeal.

He remained in detention despite having already served the sentence — a situation that sparked a chorus of protest from rights groups.

“(He) was released yesterday from the place where he was under house arrest… (but) is not completely free in his movements,” his attorney Fatimata Mbaye told AFP.

Mkheitir “is no longer in Nouakchott,” the Mauritanian capital, Mbaye said, without giving further details.

His release came in the final days of the presidency of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who had previously argued that to free Mkheitir would endanger the blogger as well as the public.

Mkheitir was sentenced to death for blasphemy in December 2014 after he wrote a blog that challenged decisions taken by the Prophet Mohammed and his companions during holy wars in the seventh century.

He repented after being given that sentence, prompting an appeal court on November 2017 to downgrade the punishment to a two-year jail term — a decision that sparked protests in the conservative Saharan nation.

His lawyers said he should have been released immediately, having already spent four years behind bars, but remained confined.

On June 20, Abdel Aziz, defended Mkheitir’s continued detention, saying it was justified by “his personal security as well as the country’s.”

“We know that from the point of the view of the law, he should be freed, but for security reasons, we cannot place the life of more than four million Mauritanians at risk,” he said.

In an open letter published the following day, 10 rights groups, including the media watchdog Reporters without Borders, called on Abdel Aziz to use his final weeks in office to end the “illegal detention”.

Abdel Aziz and religious leaders then launched a process of “preparing national opinion” for Mkheitir’s release, under which he formally repented again, on social media.

On Thursday, Abdel Aziz hands over the presidency to Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ghazouani, a former general and close ally, after serving a maximum two terms in office.

Ghazouani won presidential elections on June 22 with 52 percent of the vote, according to official figures disputed by the opposition.

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