Spotlight: Journalists at Risk

(Facebook/Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed)


Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed, Freelance

Police on January 2, 2014, arrested Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed at his home in the city of Nouadhibou and accused him of "lack of respect for the Prophet Muhammad." He was charged with apostasy under Article 306 of the Mauritanian criminal code.

The arrest was in connection with an article Mohamed wrote that was published on the news website Aqlame on December 31, 2013. The article, which was called "Religion, religiosity, and craftsmen," criticized Mauritania's caste system, an extremely delicate subject, and said that followers of Islam interpreted the religion according to circumstance, Reuters reported. The story was deemed blasphemous to the Prophet Muhammad. The journalist has frequently written articles that criticize Islamic religious beliefs and conservative practices in Mauritania.

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The editor of Aqlame, Riad Ould Ahmed, took down the article from the website and issued a statement on January 4, 2014, saying it had been posted accidentally.

On January 11, 2014, Mohamed issued a statement from prison denying that he intended to insult the prophet.

The article led to nationwide demonstrations in January 2014, 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, 2014, 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.

Mohamed's trial began on December 23, 2014, but was postponed to the next day by the judge after an altercation broke out in court when the prosecutor admitted to being a member of the caste that the blogger criticized in his article, according to news reports. Mohamed belongs to a lower social class.

No other lawyer other than those assigned by the court then came forward to take up his case, the reports said.

In court, Mohamed said he had not intended to insult the Prophet Muhammad and had repented, according to news reports. But on December 24, 2014, the court sentenced him to death, a first on apostasy charges in Mauritania, news reports said.

Local news reports also said the trial was attended by several religious leaders who insisted on monitoring the proceedings to ensure Sharia law was carried out. When the defendant was brought to court, the crowd cheered "Allahu Akbar," and then celebrated the verdict, according to the same reports.

The president told reporters in April 2014 that he did not believe Mohamed was aware of the seriousness of what he had written.

Mohamed's appeal hearing was held on April 21, 2016, at a court in Nouadhibou. During the court session, Mohamed admitted he had made a mistake and asked for forgiveness, according to news reports.

During the appeal hearing, the prosecution called for death by firing squad, according to reports. The defense demanded that the appeals court withdraw the blogger's 2014 death sentence because it was based on his social class, and asked the court to take into consideration his repentance, according to news reports.

The court upheld the death sentence for Mohamed. The court referred the case to Mauritania's Supreme Court, which has the power to repeal the sentence, reports said. Under article 306 in the Mauritanian penal code, if the Supreme Court rules that a defendant is repentant, it can reduce the sentence to up to two years in jail and up to 60,000 Mauritanian ouguiya (US$172.93).

The sentence has been widely condemned by human rights and press freedom organizations, including CPJ. In April 2016, the United Nations human rights office condemned the sentence. Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, "We should like to stress that under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Mauritania became a State party in 2004, the death penalty, if not abolished, can only be applied for the most serious crimes. ... We hope that the Supreme Court will overturn the death sentence against" him.

On January 31, 2017, the Supreme Court accepted Mohamed's appeal and on March 23, 2017, the court issued its justification, in which it criticized the lower courts for accepting apostasy charges against Mohamed in the first place, according to news reports. The court also dismissed all civil plaintiffs and sent the case back to the appeals court. The appeals court is scheduled to review the case on April 23, 2017, according to Mohamed's lawyer.

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