(Tunis) – Mauritania’s president should, in his final days in office, ensure the immediate release of Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, who remains in detention since a court ordered his release in November 2017, Human Rights Watch and 11 other nongovernmental organizations said today in a letter to President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir. 

© Private

A court originally sentenced Mkhaitir to death for blasphemy because of an article denouncing what he deemed the misuse of Islam to justify caste discrimination in Mauritania. In 2017, an appeals court reduced his sentence to a fine and two years in prison, which he had by then served.

“No one should be locked up simply for voicing an opinion, no matter how controversial, nor held one day in prison without legal basis,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “President Abdel Aziz should use his final days in office to correct a gross injustice that occurred during his tenure and free Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir.”

Authorities arrested Mkhaitir in January 2014, days after he published his article online. Instead of releasing him when the appeals court reduced his sentence in 2017, authorities transferred Mkhaitir to solitary confinement. His lawyers have been denied permission to visit him, although he receives very occasional visits from others.

His family says that he suffers from physical pain, psychological trauma, and glaucoma that could leave him blind if authorities continue to prevent his access to appropriate medical care.

Abdel Aziz came to power in a coup in 2008 and was then elected president in 2009 and reelected in 2014. He is not a candidate in the presidential elections scheduled for June 22, with a possible runoff vote on July 6, and his term is expected to end on August 1.