Mauritania 'using blogger's life to appease Islamist right-wingers'

Mauritania 'using blogger's life to appease Islamist right-wingers'
Mauritanian blogger Mohammed Cheikh Ould Mkheitir is appealing his death sentence, but he faces huge resistance from Islamist groups who are growing in power in the African state.
3 min read
16 November, 2016
Mkheitir has been found guilty of blasphemy, a charge which carries the death penalty [IHEU]
Angry crowds gathered outside Mauritania's supreme court on Tuesday demanding authorities put to death an anti-slavery blogger accused of blasphemy.

Mohammed Cheikh Ould Mkheitir is appealing against a 2014 decision to execute him after he wrote a blog post comparing bonded labour in present day Mauritania to slavery during the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

Inside the court, he made a desperate plea to judges for clemency, and for his life.

Outside, hundreds of protesters gathered, chanting "Allahu Akhbar" ["God is Greatest"] and holding banners demanding Mkheitir's death. 

Ould Dahi, the leader of an Islamist group named "Friends of the Prophet", was spotted in the crowd carrying what appeared to be a gun beneath his cloak, according to witnesses.

Justice denied

Activists believe that the court's ruling was a severe miscarriage of justice, and a cynical bid by the government to curry favour with the country's growing religious right.

Freedom Declared said that Article 206 of the Mauritanian penal code metes out the death penalty for all those found guilty of blasphemy. But it does grant the condemned a three-day window in which to repent.

Mkheitir repented the day after his verdict, but he still remains on death row until a final verdict is given next month.

But the human rights group still believe there is "extremely limited prospect of a pardon", given the popular anger mobilised against the 28-year-old blogger.

Low internet penetration rates in Mauritania make it unlikely his article was widely read. But political parties, the clergy, media and general public have all been mobilised against Mkheitir.
We need more pressure from rights groups and the international community.
- Kacem El-Ghazzali, human rights activist

After the death penalty was issued, large crowds gathered in the grounds of the president's palace to celebrate, while the leader of the Tawassoul party, Jemil Ould Mansour, said the writer was given the "fate he deserves".

Leading Mauritanian cleric Abi Ould Ali then promised 4,000 euros to whomever killed the blogger.

Meanwhile, President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz rode the wave of popular anger and promised "we will apply God's law on whoever insults the prophet, and whoever publishes such an insult".

The Mauritanian anti-slavery activist has received little or no support from the West or international NGOs.

"Mauritania is one of those unfortunate states which are outside the geopolitical interests of the West, so of course there is silence," said Kacem El-Ghazzali, a writer and representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union at the UNHCR.

Balancing act

Nouakchott faces anger from Islamists on one side, while there is limited international pressure to pardon Mkheitir on the other.

"We need more pressure from rights groups and the international community," Ghazzali said. 

There are hopes that Mkheitir will not be executed as the state has not applied the death penalty since 1987. 

The Mauritanian ambassador to Geneva said Mkheitir was arrested in order to protect him, Ghazzali said, after highlighting the case to the UNHCR. The diplomate also reportedly insisted "there is no need to talk about the death penalty".

What is clear is that Mkheitir's case has deflected attention away from the government's mismanagement of the economy and high poverty rates, allowing Nouakchott to crackdown on leftist and secular opponents capable of organising labour strikes and protests.

Among those targeted was anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid, who was jailed for protesting in 2015.

He argues that although slavery was banned in 1981 the practice is still widespread and little is being done to stop it.

Islamist groups and the government have both been mobilised against these campaigns, accusing leftists and secularists of "atheism" and "blasphemy".

It appears to be working and many secularist activists know that their fate could mean accusations of blasphemy or atheism - and death.

Follow Paul McLoughlin on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin