Mauritanian deputies should reject a new draft law that would make the death penalty mandatory for the crime of "insulting" or "mocking" God, the Quran, or the Prophet Muhammad, Human Rights Watch said today.
On November 16, 2017, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz's cabinet approved the draft legislation, which would eliminate the possibility under the current law of substituting a prison term for the death penalty if the offender promptly repents.
"Instead of decriminalizing apostasy, as the international treaties they signed would warrant, Mauritanian authorities are hurtling in the opposite direction, closing off alternatives to execution," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
The cabinet's move came a week after an appeals court sentenced Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, a blogger convicted of apostasy, to a prison term. The court accepted his repentance as a basis for voiding the death penalty that another court had imposed on him for posting an article denouncing the use of religion to justify discrimination in Mauritania. The case attracted international attention, with some leading Islamists figures and political parties in Mauritania calling for the blogger's execution.
Mauritania's current penal code, in article 306, imposes the death penalty for apostasy but allows for a lighter penalty if the defendant repents.
If the National Assembly passes the draft law, the death penalty will be mandatory, without the possibility of reducing the punishment, for any Muslim who mocks or insults God, the Quran, Muhammad, the angels, or prophets. It would still allow people to escape the death penalty for renouncing the Islamic faith or professing belief in it while secretly disbelieving, provided that the offender repented under specified conditions.
The timing of the introduction of this draft law is clearly related to the verdict handed down in the blogger's appeals hearing, Human Rights Watch said. A lower court sentenced Mkhaitir to death for apostasy in December 2014 for his article, in which he criticized fellow Mauritanians for citing incidents from the life of the Prophet Muhammad to legitimize caste discrimination in Mauritania. Mkhaitir belongs to the so-called "forgerons," which is viewed as a lower caste. An appeals court upheld the death sentence.
But on January 31, 2017, the Supreme Court sent the case back for a new trial. On November 8, 2017, the Court of Appeals in Nouadhibou reduced Mkhaitir's punishment to two years of prison and a fine. The prosecutor general immediately challenged the appeals court ruling before the Supreme Court.
The lowered sentence should have led to Mkhaitir's release, since he had been in preventive detention for nearly four years. But in the days since the ruling, one of the defense lawyers, Fatimata M'Baye, has been unable to locate her client. A presidential adviser reportedly stated that Mkhaitir had not been freed and would remain detained until the Supreme Court's review. His whereabouts are unknown.
Mauritania's new draft law on apostasy and the failure of authorities to immediately release and void charges against Mkhaitir for his peaceful expression violate international law guarantees protecting free speech, such as those enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Mauritania has been a party since 2004.
In its general comment number 34, the United Nations Human Rights Committee--the body of independent experts that monitors governments' compliance with the ICCPR--makes clear that "prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant," unless they constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.
Both UN and African human rights standards on the right to life encourage countries to move toward abolition of the death penalty and in countries that retain it, make clear that it should be limited to the most serious crimes and may be imposed only after a fair trial. The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights has stated that: "In those States which have not yet abolished the death penalty it is vital that it is used for only the most serious crimes - understood to be crimes involving intentional killing."
"Instead of introducing laws to toughen punishment for apostasy, Mauritania should be clarifying the legal status and whereabouts of Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, who should never have spent a single day in prison for his writings," Whitson said.