International Rights Organizations Issue Unified Demand to Mauritania for Mkhaitir’s Release

In News by Porter Anderson

Mauritania has yet to release writer Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaïtir, convicted of blasphemy, a year after his official release date.

Mohamed Mkhaïtir. Image: Human Rights Watch

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘A Serious Human Rights Violation’

One year ago on Friday (November 9), a Mauritanian appeals court commuted the death sentence of blogger and prisoner of conscience Mohamed Mkhaïtir, and yet he still is being detained in an undisclosed location.

Thirty-two human rights organizations have formed a collective campaign, demanding that Mauritania’s authorities “promptly and safely” release Mkhaïtir at once.

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaïtir is 35. He is said to have limited access to his family during this protracted detention.

With its Freedom to Publish committee in the lead, the International Publishers Association (IPA) has become a signatory to the joint statement issued late on Thursday (November 8), as have PEN America, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders. The IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee, chaired by publisher Kristenn Einarsson, is the group of publishing specialists who annually name a recipient of the Prix Voltaire for courage in the face of efforts to suppress publishing.

In its extraordinary international statement on the anniversary of what should have been Mkhaïtir’s release, the collective campaigning on his behalf has issued an overview of the facts in Mkhaïtir’s case.

‘Blogging Is Not a Crime’
  • The writer published an online blog posting in December 2013. In it, he wrote of slavery and discrimination, including hostility against the blacksmith caste, to which he belongs
  • Mkhaïtir was initially arrested on January 2, 2014
  • During police interrogation, Mkhaïtir reportedly “repented” several times and once in writing on January 11, 2014
  • In a trial that didn’t begin until December 23, 2015, Mkhaïtir was chartged with apostasy, the renunciation of a religious faith, and with insulting the prophet Mohammad
  • He was sentenced to death the following day
  • On November 9, 2017, an appeals court reduced that death sentence to a fine and two years in prison–which he already had served
  • And yet, in March of this year, the Mauritanian minister of justice, Mokhtar Malal Dia, told the news media that Mkhaïtir still was being held somewhere in the country
  • In May, Mauritanian authorities informed the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that Mkhaïtir was in “administrative detention for his own safety”

Mkhaïtir’s attorneys have tried for close to a year to see their client. Their requests have remained unanswered by Malal Dia. The writer’s domestic attorney Fatimata Mbaye, in a prepared statement issued Thursday, said, “Rather than respecting the court order, authorities have refused to acknowledge the whereabouts of Mkhaïtir and deprived him of contact with the outside world.

“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.”Kine Fatim Diop, Amnesty International

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

More than once, the UN has criticized Mkhaïtir’s detention, as well as the original death sentence. Mauritania was ruled to be in violation of international law in June 2017 by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

The writer’s physical condition has become a growing concern among many watching the case. He’s thought to be unwell and to need medical treatment.

Kate Barth, legal director with Freedom Now, is quoted in the statement, saying, “This case is emblematic of the Mauritanian government’s repression of freedom of expression and information, particularly human right defenders campaigning against discrimination and journalists covering the illegal use of slave labor.

“Mauritania must immediately and unconditionally release Mohamed Mkhaïtir and stop jailing people who peacefully express their opinions.”

Ironically, Mauritania has also ratified 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,  which protect the right to life.

More commentary in the 32-body statement comes from Kine Fatim Diop, Amnesty International’s West Africa campaigner. Fatim Diop is quoted, saying, “Continuing to detain Mohamed Mkhaïtir demonstrates serious contempt for the rule of law by the Mauritanian authorities.

“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. Blogging is not a crime, and, in accordance with the Mauritanian court’s decision, he must be released immediately and unconditionally and the authorities should explore all available means to guarantee his safety.” (At the time of Mkhaïtir’s arrest, protestors called for his execution for alleged blasphemy.)

With Mauritania deemed to e standing outside the law, the United Nations Human Rights Committee is to make a review of Mauritania’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2019.

Signatories to the November 9 Call for Mkhaïtir’s Release
  • Action des Chrétiens pour l’abolition de la Torture (France) 
  • Africtivistes 
  • Amnesty International 
  • Anti-Slavery International
  • Association des Blogueurs pour une Citoyenneté Active (ABCA)- Niger 
  • Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille (Mauritania) 
  • Association Mauritanienne des Droits de l’Homme (Mauritania) 
  • Association Villageois 2.0 (Guinea) 
  • Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) 
  • Comité de Solidarité avec les Victimes des Violations des Droits Humains en Mauritanie (CSVVDH) 
  • Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort 
  • FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights) within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders 
  • Fondation Sahel (Mauritania) 
  • Forum des Organisations Nationales des Droits de l’Homme en Mauritanie (FONAD) 
  • Freedom Now 
  • Freedom United 
  • GERDDES-Mauritania ;
  • Human Rights Watch 
  • International Publishers Association 
  • International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) 
  • Initiative pour la résurgence du mouvement abolitionniste (IRA-Mauritania)
  • Minority Rights Group International
  • PEN America
  • Réseau des bloggeurs du Burkina ;
  • Pour une Mauritanie verte et démocratique
  • Réseau des blogueurs du Sénégal #NdadjeTweetup 
  • Reporters without borders 
  • SOS Esclaves- Mauritania 
  • The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights
  • Touche pas à ma Nationalité (Mauritanie) 
  • Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization 
  • World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

More from Publishing Perspectives on the freedom to publish is here, and on the IPA’s Prix Voltaire is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.