Mauritanian 'blasphemy' blogger repents again

Human rights groups have long been campaigning on behalf of Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir, who was sentenced to death in 2014 for insulting the Prophet Mohammed.

NOUAKCHOTT - A Mauritanian blogger who is still being detained despite serving jail time for alleged blasphemy has once more expressed repentance, a condition set by religious chiefs for his release, an official said Tuesday.

Human rights groups have long been campaigning on behalf of Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir, who was sentenced to death in December 2014 for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed.

He repented after that sentence, prompting an appeal court on November 2017 to downgrade the punishment to a two-year jail term, a decision that sparked protests in the conservative Saharan nation.

His lawyers say he should have been released immediately, having spent four years behind bars.

But he remains in custody, a situation confirmed last month by outgoing President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and defended by him.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mkheitir had expressed his repentance on his Facebook page late Thursday, shortly after a meeting late Monday between Aziz and religious leaders to "launch a process of preparing national opinion" for his release.

Mkheitir -- also spelt Mkhaitir -- is expected to be freed swiftly at the end of this process, the source said, without giving a date.

The meeting ended with a decision requiring Mkheitir to express "public repentance on social media and social networks," the official said.

"As I announced in early 2014, and as I have repeated on every available occasion in court, I hereby reaffirm my repentance before Allah, the Lord of the Worlds," his Facebook posting, his first since 2014, said in Arabic.

He was also expected to show repentance on Tuesday on public and private media, the source said.

A commission of ulemas -- guardians of Islamic doctrine -- has been set up to "monitor" the process leading to Mkheitir's release, the official said.

A meeting with him will take place where he is being held, in a fortress in Nouakchott, the source said. There was no word about when the meeting would take place.

Campaigners appeal

On June 20, Abdel Aziz, who is stepping down in August at the end of a maximum two terms in office, defended Mkheitir's continued detention, saying it was justified by "his personal security as well as the country's."

"We know that from the point of the view of the law, he should be freed, but for security reasons, we cannot place the life of more than four million Mauritanians at risk," he said.

"Millions of Mauritanians took to the streets to demand his execution. His release would mean that chaos would be allowed to take root in the country," he added.

In an open letter published the following day, 10 rights groups, including the media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters without Borders, RSF), called on Abdel Aziz to use his final weeks in office to end the "illegal detention."

Failing to resolve this problem would greatly overshadow his legacy, they said.

Mkheitir, believed to be aged in his mid-thirties, was accused of challenging decisions taken by the Prophet and his companions during holy wars in the seventh century.

The appeal court decision triggered angry protests, prompting the government in April 2018 to harden religious laws so that showing repentance for blasphemy and apostasy could no longer prevent the death penalty.

The law was approved despite an appeal by the African Union's human rights body for the government to review the bill.