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article imageMauritania releases jailed 'blasphemy' blogger

By AFP     Jul 30, 2019 in World

Mauritania has released a blogger who drew international attention after being accused of blasphemy, his lawyer and the campaign group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said Tuesday.

Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir, 36, had been initially sentenced to death but was then given a jail term on appeal.

He remained in detention despite having already served the sentence -- a situation that sparked a chorus of protest from rights groups.

"(He) was released yesterday from the place where he was under house arrest... (but) is not completely free in his movements," his attorney Fatimata Mbaye told AFP.

Mkheitir "is no longer in Nouakchott," the Mauritanian capital, Mbaye said, without giving further details.

A security official in neighbouring Senegal, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed Senegalese press reports that Mkheitir had entered the country on Monday.

Relatives of Mkheitir said his parents, fearing for their lives, had sold their possessions in Mauritania in late 2016 and left for France via Senegal.

The French foreign ministry declined to comment on whether it was possible that Mkheitir might join them there.

RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire said in a statement: "We are deeply relieved that he has finally been freed after being held for more than five and a half years in almost total isolation.

Mauritania
Mauritania
Gillian HANDYSIDE, AFP

"For nothing more than a social network post, he was subjected to a terrible ordeal that violated a decision by his own country's judicial system. This blogger was francophone Africa's longest-held citizen-journalist."

Mkheitir's release came in the final days of the presidency of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who had previously argued that to free Mkheitir would endanger the blogger as well as the public.

- Death sentence -

Mkheitir was sentenced to death for blasphemy in December 2014 after he wrote a blog that challenged decisions taken by the Prophet Mohammed and his companions during holy wars in the seventh century.

He repented after being given that sentence, prompting an appeal court on November 2017 to downgrade the punishment to a two-year jail term -- a decision that sparked protests in the conservative Saharan nation.

His lawyers said he should have been released immediately, having already spent four years behind bars, but he remained confined.

On June 20, Abdel Aziz defended Mkheitir's continued detention, saying it was justified by "his personal security as well as the country's".

"We know that from the point of the view of the law, he should be freed, but for security reasons, we cannot place the life of more than four million Mauritanians at risk," he said.

In an open letter published the following day, 10 rights groups, including the media watchdog RSF, called on Abdel Aziz to use his final weeks in office to end the "illegal detention".

Mkheitir's release is one of the last acts under President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz  who is step...
Mkheitir's release is one of the last acts under President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who is stepping down after a maximum two terms in office
Ludovic MARIN, POOL/AFP

Abdel Aziz and religious leaders then launched a process of "preparing national opinion" for Mkheitir's release, under which he formally repented again, on social media.

On Thursday, Abdel Aziz hands over the presidency to Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ghazouani, a former general and close ally, after serving a maximum two terms in office.

Ghazouani won presidential elections on June 22 with 52 percent of the vote, according to official figures disputed by the opposition.

RSF said the case of Mkheitir, also spelled Mkhaitir, had been the main cause for Mauritania's sharp fall in its World Press Freedom Index.

Since 2016, Mauritania has plummeted 46 places in the rankings -- a decline outstripped only by Tanzania -- and is currently placed 94th out of 180 countries.

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