(Beirut) – Mauritania’s authorities freed a blogger on July 29, 2019, who had been held in a blasphemy case for five and-a-half years, Human Rights Watch said today.

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir. 

© Private

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir was freed three days before the inauguration of the new president, Mohamed Ould Ghezouani. The authorities transferred Mkhaitir directly from detention to a location outside Mauritania, ostensibly because his life would be in danger in his native country after religious figures and demonstrators had called for his execution.

“By freeing Mkhaitir three days before stepping down as president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has addressed one of the most heinous injustices of his 10-year tenure,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “His successor should prioritize decriminalizing peaceful speech, starting with the elimination of capital punishment for blasphemy, so that no Mauritanian ever again suffers what Mkhaitir did.”

The authorities arrested Mkhaitir in January 2014 for denouncing what he said was the misuse of Islam to justify caste discrimination in Mauritania. A lower court sentenced him to death for blasphemy in December of that year. In November 2017, an appeals court converted the penalty to two years of prison, already served. But instead of releasing him, authorities held him in solitary and arbitrary detention for another 21 months.

Mkhaitir is one of many Mauritanians convicted or otherwise persecuted for speaking out against ethnic and caste discrimination or the vestiges of slavery in the country.

In May 2018, six UN special rapporteurs on human rights urged Mauritanian authorities to release Mkhaitir and ensure his safety. In June 2019, nine special rapporteurs again called for his release while expressing alarm at his deteriorating health while in detention. Mkhaitir is reportedly suffering from physical pain, psychological trauma, and glaucoma, according to his family.