Mauritania journalist held in connection with critical article

New York, January 21, 2014–Authorities in Mauritania should drop charges against a journalist who has been detained since January 2, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed has been held in connection with an article he wrote that was deemed blasphemous to the Prophet Muhammad.

Police arrested Mohamed at his home in the city of Nouadhibou and accused him of “lack of respect for the Prophet Muhammad” in connection with his article published on Aqlame news website on December 31. He has been charged with apostasy under Article 306 of the Mauritanian criminal code. If convicted, the journalist could face the death penalty, according to news reports. No trial date has been set.

Mohamed’s article, called “Religion, religiosity and craftsmen,” criticized Prophet Muhammad and said that followers of Islam interpreted the religion according to circumstance. The journalist has frequently written articles that criticize Islamic religious beliefs and conservative practices in Mauritania.

On January 11, Mohamed issued a statement from prison denying that he intended to insult the prophet.

The article led to nationwide demonstrations on January 10, in which protesters called for President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to punish Mohamed for what they saw as blasphemy. In response, Aziz told the protesters, “Websites, free TV stations, and journalists should respect our religion. … We will do everything that is necessary to protect the Islamic religion and to defend the Messenger of Allah,” according to news reports.

A Mauritanian preacher named Abi Ould Ali said on January 10 that he would pay 4,000 euros to anyone who killed Mohamed, unless the journalist repented in three days, Mostafa el-Sayed, a journalist for the Sahara Medias news website, said, according to news reports.

“The charges against Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed belong to the era of medieval inquisitions,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “The administration of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz should immediately release the journalist, drop the charges, and provide him with protection from death threats.”

The editor of Aqlame, Riad Ould Ahmed, took down the article from the website and issued a statement on January 4 saying it had been posted accidentally.