New York — Mauritanian authorities on November 16 approved an amendment to the country's penal code that could allow courts to retroactively retry freelance blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed, who was convicted of blasphemy in 2014, and potentially re-sentence him to death, the state-owned news agency AMI and Agence France-Pressereported. The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemned this change in the country's legal code and called on Mauritanian authorities to release Mohamed immediately.
A Mauritanian court sentenced Mohamed to death in 2014 on apostasy charges after he published an article entitled "Religion, religiosity, and craftsman," CPJ documented at the time.
In the article, the journalist criticized Mauritania's caste system, an extremely delicate subject, and said followers of Islam interpreted the religion according to circumstance, Reuters reported at the time. According to news reports, the court found that the article was blasphemous to the Prophet Muhammad.
In court in 2014, Mohamed said he had not intended to insult the Prophet Muhammad and repented, according to news reports.
Based on Mohamed's repentance, an appeals court in the city of Nouadhibou on November 9, 2017, reduced Mohamed's death sentence to two years in prison and ordered him to pay a fine of 60,000 Mauritanian ouguiya ($172), according to news reports.
Having served more than three years in prison, the blogger was scheduled to be released, but has remained in custody, according to his sister Ayecha Mint Cheikh and a press statement from the justice minister, Ibrahim Ould Daddah.
Under the newly approved law, "defamation to God, the Prophet Muhammad, Holy Books, angels or prophets" is punishable by death, and repentance would not allow authorities to reduce the sentence or drop charges as they had previously done in Mohamed's case. The law also allows courts to uphold retroactively any previous sentences that contradict the new amendment, according to AMI and Agence France-Presse.
"Instead of reforming laws to protect journalists from facing the injustices that Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed has been through, the Mauritanian authorities have passed a far more repressive law," CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said. "We call on Mauritanian authorities to immediately release Mohamed, and abolish laws that curtail press freedom, rather than making them more stringent."
The justice minister told al-Akhbar that the amended law will not be applied retroactively.
Mohamed's article originally 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. Several religious scholars have been calling for Mohamed's execution, and have led ongoing protests condemning the reduced sentence against the blogger, according to news reports.
The blogger's family and lawyers have not been able to visit him since the court reduced his sentence, his sister told CPJ. The blogger's lawyer, Fatimata M'bay, told local newspaper al-Akhbar that she has no information about Mohamed's exact location.
Since President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz called a referendum in August to abolish the country's senate after it ruled against expanding presidential powers, Mauritanian authorities have taken steps to crack down on critical journalists, CPJ documented. The Mauritanian Radio and Television Broadcast Authority ordered Mauritania's five privately owned news stations to shut down for "failing to fulfil their financial agreements" with the country's broadcast regulator, localmedia reported. Separately, prosecutors have accused at least four journalists of allegedly accepting bribes from Mohamed Bouamatou, who is the president's cousin and a vocal critic of the ruling party, and belonging to an "organized movement" to "disturb public order," according to news reports.