Mauritania: Free Activists Held on Blasphemy Charges

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(Beirut) – Mauritania’s government should drop charges of blasphemy and insulting Islam against eight political activists and release the five held in pretrial detention since February 26, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. The Nouakchott West Criminal Court is due to hear the case on October 20.

The prosecution accused the eight defendants of “mocking God, his messenger and the Holy Book,” and “creating, recording and publishing messages using an information system that affects the values of Islam,” according to the charge sheet, which Human Rights Watch reviewed. They could face the death penalty if convicted.

“Posting a photo or text on social media, even something others might see as insulting religion, should not be a crime,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These charges should have never been brought in the first place, let alone been used to jail five people for eight months.”

The accusations for three of the men included collaboration with two foreign nationals who had been deported from Mauritania for allegedly proselytizing for Christianity.

The five defendants in detention since February 26 are Ahmed Mohamed Moctar, 38, Othman Mohamed Lahbib, 25, Mohamed Abdelrahman Mohamed, 58, Mohamed Ould Hida, 41, and Mohamed Fal Ishaq, 41. One other defendant was provisionally released and two are abroad.

Mauritanian authorities in February summoned the eight men for questioning after they attended a meeting organized by the newly founded group Alliance for the Refoundation of the Mauritanian State (AREM). The group calls for reforming Mauritania’s public administration and health systems and rejects the country’s caste system.

On July 6, a specialized investigations unit dealing with terrorism and state security crimes at the General Prosecutor’s office referred the case to the Nouakchott West Criminal Court, charging the eight men with blasphemy and contempt of religion under article 306 of the Penal Code. The authorities also charged three of them with disseminating content that “undermines the values of Islam” under article 21 of the Cybercrime Law and article 20 of the Counterterrorism Law.

In July 2019, in an earlier case, authorities freed a blogger, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, who had been held in a blasphemy case for five and a half years. After a court sentenced Mkhaitir to death in December 2014, an appeals court converted the penalty to two years in prison, already served. But the authorities held him in solitary and arbitrary detention for another 21 months after that before they released him. Mkhaitir is in exile in France and heads the newly founded AREM.

Prosecutors have an arsenal of repressive legislation to punish critics for nonviolent speech, including harsh and overbroad laws on terrorism, cybercrime, apostasy, and criminal defamation used to jail human rights defenders, activists, and bloggers.

In 2018, the National Assembly passed a law on blasphemy that replaces article 306 of the Criminal Code and makes the death penalty mandatory for anyone convicted of “blasphemous speech” and “sacrilegious” acts. The law eliminates the possibility under article 306 of substituting prison terms for the death penalty for certain apostasy-related crimes if the offender promptly repents. The law also provides for a sentence of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 600,000 Ouguiyas (US$15,940) for “offending public indecency and Islamic values” and for “breaching Allah’s prohibitions” or assisting in their breach.

In December 2015, the National Assembly passed the cybercrime law, which established prison sentences and heavy fines for disseminating certain types of politically sensitive content over the internet.

Mauritania’s laws impose the death penalty for a range of offenses, including, under certain conditions, blasphemy, apostasy, adultery, and homosexuality, though a de facto moratorium on executions has been in effect since 1987. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and its irreversible and inhumane nature.

Article 19 (1) of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Mauritania in 2004, says, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference, and, everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.” The Human Rights Committee, which provides the definitive interpretation of the covenant, determined that, except in very limited circumstances, prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the covenant. It also said that “[T]he free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives is essential.”

Article 9 (2) of the African Charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), which Mauritania ratified in 1986, states that “[E]very individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.”

“The authorities should urgently prioritize decriminalizing peaceful speech, starting with the elimination of capital punishment for blasphemy,” Goldstein said.