Mauritanian blogger faces death penalty for ‘apostasy’

Mauritanian Blogger
Mauritanian Blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould M’khaitir (International Humanist and Ethical Union)

There are reports that Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkheitir faces his final appeal on 15 November, only days after a leading Muslim religious body in Mauritania reiterated calls for him to be executed following his death sentence for ‘apostasy’.

The 28-year-old blogger was arrested In Mauritania in January 2014 for allegedly publishing an article seen by some as insulting Muhammad and constituting an act of apostasy. His writing in fact sought to highlight the indentured servitude in Mauritanian society, often socially justified with reference to national cultural identity and in particular to Islamic tradition. This resulted in him being maligned by clerics and government officials alike as a ‘blasphemer’.

In December 2015 the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) reported that, by the end of December 2014, he had been sentenced to death for ‘apostasy’, in a trial that started and ended on a single day. He has been on death row ever since.

There appears to be a moratorium on carrying out death sentences in general; however, along with individuals convicted of other capital crimes, such as terrorism and homosexuality, Mkheitir remains on death row, with extremely limited prospect of a pardon.

Article 306 of the Mauritanian penal code stipulates apostasy as a crime punishable by death. Anyone found guilty of converting from Islam is supposed to be given three days to repent and if the individual concerned does not do so, they will face confiscation of their property, or the death sentence.

However Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkheitir was found guilty of ‘apostasy’ and sentenced to death — despite ‘repenting’ in his one-day trial.

Following Mkheitir’s initial arrest, there were a number of protests condemning his writing (though with a low level of internet penetration, and at around 50% one of the lowest remaining levels of literacy in the world, there is good reason to think that the content of his blogs was not really a direct motivator for many of the protesters).

There were numerous calls, including by imams, scholars and professors, for his execution. One preacher, Abi Ould Ali, offered EUR 4,000 to anyone who killed Mkheitir. The Mauritanian government and opposition parties supported the protests. President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said, “We will apply God’s law on whoever insults the prophet, and whoever publishes such an insult.”

After his death sentence was handed down in December 2014, there were again popular celebrations. Jemil Ould Mansour, leader of Mauritanian Islamist party Tawassoul, welcomed the conviction, saying that Mkheitir had got “the fate he deserves”.

Ensaf Haidar, the wife of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, protested against Mkheitir’s sentence in August 2015, writing: “Millions of people around the world rallied to the support of Raif Badawi; who will care for a poor young man in Mauritania? He will be executed for blasphemy – by those who insist that Isis does not represent Islam.”

It has been observed that the charge of ‘spreading atheism’ has been used not only to silence writers and activists but for political means also. A number of left-wing activists and writers have highlighted what they see as a systematic campaign which accuses them of spreading atheism. They have attributed this to the Muslim Brotherhood seeking to undermine the leftist movement and to make people fearful of it. Left-wing activists have been called upon to repent to God and integrate themselves into Muslim society, fatwas signed by a group of Mauritanian religious scholars have been issued accusing some activists of apostasy, and the Supreme Council for Fatwa and Grievances has issued a statement calling on activists on social media to “stop offending Islam and the Prophet and spreading atheism”.

There were calls for the left-affiliated Aqlam Horra (free pens) website to be shut down after it published an article entitled “Religion, Religiousness and Masters,” (which was subsequently deleted and apologised for). A Mauritanian businessman had said he would pay whoever killed the writer responsible for the article.