"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Death penalty looms for Mauritanian blogger accused of insulting Islam

Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir
Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir is pictured in a courtroom in
Nouadhibou, Mauritania, in April in a picture supplied by his sister.
Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir awaits the final verdict for a blog seen as critical of Mauritania's caste system.

In the dusty Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, thousands of protesters armed with loudspeakers gathered outside the country’s Supreme Court on November 15. Demonstrators held messages of protests on paper, some worn around their heads to keep their hands free, and demanded the court uphold the death sentence against Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, a Mauritanian blogger imprisoned in January 2014 on charges of apostasy. His alleged crime was to defame the name of the Prophet Muhammad. “Our first demand [is] to execute this criminal. The Prophet Muhammad is our honor, nobody has right to talk about him!” said one unidentified protester outside the court.

For Mkhaitir’s sister, the scene was almost too much to bear. “When I saw hundreds of people demanding that my brother must be executed, I felt like I could not breath anymore. I wished to be dead [rather] than to see that,” she tells Newsweek in WhatsApp messages sent to and translated by an intermediary. She requested anonymity since she fears reprisals for being associated with her brother. “I asked myself, ‘How can they be like that? Do they not have sisters or mothers? Do they not understand how we feel?’”

While the court set December 20 as the date for a final decision on Mkhaitir’s case, the 29-year-old blogger languished in a cramped cell 300 miles north of the capital in the city of Nouadhibou, isolated from family and legal counsel. His detention looks set to roll into a third year, as the removal of one of the Supreme Court’s judges means that it will likely be 2017 before the court decides whether Mkhaitir will become the first person in Mauritania to be executed for almost 30 years.

The bloodthirsty protest in November was the latest instalment in a case that has become a source of national fury in Mauritania, a conservative Islamic republic and one of just eight countries where apostasy is a capital offense. But activists supporting Mkhaitir say that the case is not about Islam, but is rather an example of discrimination. And despite its similarities to more prominent cases—such as that of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi—Mkhaitir’s supporters say his plight is at risk of being ignored by the international community.

The story goes back to December 2013, when an anonymous article appeared on a Mauritanian news website and circulated via social media. The title of the article was “Religion and Religiosity for Blacksmiths”—the Arabic word maalemine, rendered as blacksmiths, refers in Mauritania to people descended from craftsmen, who are among the lowest in terms of social status. In the article, the author argues that Mauritania’s ruling classes have used incidents from the Prophet Muhammad’s life to justify racial discrimination and slavery.

The article sparked public outcry and Mkhaitir was quickly revealed as its author. Mkhaitir, was by no means a prolific blogger; he worked as an accountant for a loading company in Nouadhibou at the time, according to U.S.-based advocacy group Freedom Now. He turned himself in to police on January 2, 2014, and was charged with apostasy. Eight days later, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz appeared to back calls for Mkhaitir’s execution, telling protesters: “We will apply God’s law on whoever insults the Prophet and whoever publishes such an insult.”

Mkhaitir was kept in detention for 12 months before his trial commenced in December 2014. Soon after his arrest, he released a public statement repenting of his alleged crime. When his trial finally began in December 2014, Mkhaitir publicly apologized and again repented. Mauritanian law allows for the death sentence to be overturned in the case of a convicted apostate who repents. However, on December 24, 2014, the court sentenced Mkhaitir to death for the crime of zendegha , or “hypocrisy”—according to Mauritanian law, this is the crime of someone committing apostasy and then repenting insincerely. He was sentenced to be executed by firing squad.

The blogger appealed and, in April 2016, the Mauritanian court of appeal ruled that the appropriate conviction would have been apostasy, rather than “hypocrisy.” The court of appeal thus transferred the case to the Supreme Court to judge whether Mkhaitir’s repentance was sincere.

Click here to read the full article

Source: Newsweek, Conor Gaffey, December 19, 2016

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