The Supreme Court of Mauritania is expected to convene Tuesday to render a final verdict in the death penalty case of blogger Mohammed Shaikh Ould, also known as Mohammed Ould Mkhaitir.
The case has drawn international attention to the Islamic Republic, where Mkhaitir was arrested in 2014 on blasphemy charges after publishing a piece on a Mauritanian website. It criticized religion wielded as a weapon to perpetuate caste-system social injustice in Mauritania – essentially, the nation’s modern-day slavery.
Mohamed was sentenced to death a year ago, amid angry protests by those calling for his execution and those who wished to defend human rights and free speech. His appeal was scheduled for November 15.
Two days before that, Islamic authorities issued fatwas calling for his death, and thousands of protesters again took to the streets decrying Mkhaitir, so the court – fearing for its own safety, as well as that of Mkhaitir and the legal counsel – postponed the final decision to December.
“The public outcry and danger of violence threaten the judiciary’s independence and hinder the Supreme Court’s ability to safeguard his due process rights,” said Freedom Now in a letter sent on November 28 to an official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Freedom Now organization provides legal counsel to Mkhaitir along with his local lawyers, three of whom have quit during the proceedings because of death threats. The team is joined by Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other rights groups who have appealed to President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz on the blogger’s behalf without success.
Aziz has told Mauritanians that media content must respect Islam, and the government “will do everything that is necessary to protect the Islamic religion and to defend the Messenger of Allah.”
Activists say Mauritania has renewed its arrest of anti-slavery activists, in a nation where tougher anti-slavery measures were enacted in 2015 but the rate continues to be one of the highest in the world, according to the Global Slavery Index.
Its deep roots in a caste-system culture influenced by religion are what Mkhaitir’s article sought to address; despite the new laws, Mauritania still is not enforcing them effectively, the GSI said.