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Rights groups call on Mauritania to release jailed blogger

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir's death sentence for blasphemy was commuted last year but he remains detained, Amnesty International says
Rights groups accuse Mauritania's government of showing 'serious contempt for the rule of law' (AFP)

More than two dozen human rights groups have called on Mauritania to immediately release a blogger who remains in detention despite a court order issued last November that commuted his death sentence on blasphemy charges.

A Mauritanian court commuted Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir's death sentence on 9 November 2017 and ordered his release, but the blogger remains detained in an undisclosed location, Amnesty International said on Thursday.

“Continuing to detain Mohamed Mkhaitir demonstrates serious contempt for the rule of law by the Mauritanian authorities," said Kine Fatim Diop, Amnesty International’s West Africa campaigner, in a news release.

Human Rights Watch, Freedom Now, the Forum of National Human Rights Organisations in Mauritania, and 28 other groups signed the appeal for his release.

"He is a prisoner of conscience whose life is in the hands of the authorities solely because he peacefully exercised his right to freedom of expression," Diop said.

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Mauritania's legal system is based on a mix of French civil law and Islamic law.

Earlier this year, the country passed a mandatory death penalty law for anyone found guilty of "blasphemous speech" and acts deemed "sacrilegious," Amnesty said.

Previously, Article 306 of the country's penal code allowed a death sentence to be commuted to life in prison should a convicted person show remorse for apostasy-related crimes.

Accused of 'speaking lightly' of the Prophet

Mkhaitir was arrested in January 2014 after he criticised Mauritania's caste system and religious discrimination online.

He was accused of apostasy for allegedly "speaking lightly" of the Prophet Muhammad, and a Mauritanian court convicted him, handing down a death sentence.

He repented several times in front of the courts, however, and last year, a Mauritanian judge reduced his death sentence to two years in prison, which he had already served, and a fine.

But Mkhaitir remains in detention and his lawyers said on Thursday that they have been unable to visit him despite multiple requests, according to Amnesty.

He is believed to be in need of urgent medical care, the human rights group said.

This amounts to incommunicado detention, a serious human rights violation

- Fatimata Mbaye, Mkhaitir's lawyer

“Rather than respecting the court order, authorities have refused to acknowledge the whereabouts of Mkhaitir and deprived him of contact with the outside world,” said Fatimata Mbaye, a human rights defender and Mkhaitir’s lawyer.

“This amounts to incommunicado detention, a serious human rights violation. Authorities should end this arbitrary detention, release Mkhaitir and guarantee his safety.”

In May, the Mauritanian authorities told the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that Mkhaitir was in “administrative detention for his own safety,” Amnesty said.

Following the court's decision ordering his release, large protests took place in Mauritania, with some people calling for Mkhaitir to be tried again and sentenced to death.

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