No lawyer to defend young “apostate” sentenced to death in Mauritania, after he questioned the role of Islam in legitimizing slavery
A young writer sentenced to death for “apostasy” in 2014, is due to have his appeal heard Monday. However, it has emerged that no lawyer will be present for the defence, as no one in the profession is prepared to represent the accused.
Mauritanian blogger and journalist, Mohamed Cheikh Ould M’kheitir, wrote an article published in early 2014, in which he asked fellow Mauritanians to consider how religion is used to legitimize the country’s widespread slavery problem. He used examples from early Islam as a way of calling into question the ‘cultural’ defence of indentured servitude.
Mauritania has the highest percentage of de facto slaves in the world, only criminalizing slave ownership as recently as 2007 under international pressure. The ban is widely ignored and poorly enforced.
M’kheitir’s article sparked a vociferous public campaign led by prominent clerics and government officials claiming that his historical examples “insulted” the Prophet Muhammad. A Mauritanian businessmen during one of the protests put a bounty of 10,000 Euro on the writer.
As well as having no lawyer for the appeal hearing, during his incarceration for over two years M’kheitir has been denied visitors and reading material, according to the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which has been campaigning for M’kheitir’s release.
President of the IHEU, Andrew Copson, said:
“The treatment that Mohamed Cheikh Ould M’kheitir has received under the Mauritanian justice system is abhorrent. Mauritanian authorities should be aware that the world is watching this appeal and expects that any truly just court will overturn the conviction. Given the level of public acrimony against him, the authorities must also act to guarantee his security upon his release.
“The criminalization of ‘apostasy’ is fundamentally an attempt at compulsion toward a particular religion. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, religion or belief: to consider, to question, to think for themselves, to form their own view of the world, and ultimately to leave or convert between religions or beliefs. By imprisoning and sentencing to death Mohamed Cheikh Ould M’kheitir, Mauritania is fundamentally violating this human right. Mauritania’s penal code Article 306, which establishes the crime of ‘apostasy’ punishable by death, must be abolished.”
The original trial took place in one day on 24 December 2014. Clerics and political parties widely applauded the handing down of the death sentence.
While there is a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in Mauritania, local commentators have previously suggested that failure to enforce the execution would encourage “the rise of atheism” in the country. One fundamentalist group, the People’s Initiative for Nasrahas, called for M’kheitir’s death and for the implementation of a comprehensive campaign against all atheists in the country, on vague “security” grounds.
As in most Islamic countries which outlaw “apostasy”, the opportunity to “repent” is granted. M’kheitir denies apostasy, and denies that his writing was intended as religious “insult”, and apologised, nevertheless the court found that the article spoke “lightly of the Prophet Mohammed” and therefore evidenced “apostasy”.
The IHEU previously highlighted the initial trial against M’kheitir at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014. At the time, members of the Mauritanian delegation responded that there was no need to address concerns about the death penalty in this case, since M’kheitir had been arrested for his own “protection”. Nine months later he was on death row.
Earlier this year, the court of appeal set M’kheitir’s appeal date for Monday 18 April.
NOTES AND BACKGROUND
Though the appeal is due Monday there is some confusion about whether it will actually take place on this day or later in the month.
Analysis of M’kheitir’s writing
For the first time in English, the IHEU has been able to provide an analysis of the article over which M’kheitir was accused of “speaking lightly of the Prophet”, entitled “Religion and religiosity for ‘Maalemine’” (“الدين و التدين و “لمعلمين).
While derived from the high Arabic for ‘teacher’, maalemine in the Mauritanian context refers to usually darker-skinned people descended from blacksmiths, carpenters and other skilled laborers regarded as “low caste” and still subject to discrimination.
The article, which is less than 1,200 words in Arabic, discusses religious double-standards, including how scriptural narration and the biography of the prophet Muhammad may act to normalize slavery. Mauritania has outlawed slavery but the caste-based system of indentured servitude is ongoing, and the authorities have frequently harassed campaigners who work to end the practice.
In the article, M’kheitir compared the ongoing indentured servitude in the country to the Prophet Muhammad’s own treatment of the Jews of the Hijaz, and critiqued other decisions and strategies of early Muslims at war. In particular, the article distinguishes religion itself from claimed religious behavior. It then presents stories from Islamic narration, questioning why, in one story, a freed black slave who tried to kill a cousin of Muhammad appears to be unforgivable, whereas others committing similar acts were forgiven. M’kheitir again questions the justice of the Prophet in relation to the story of two tribes; one of them, the Quriash (from which the writer himself descends), the second the Banu Quraidah, primarily Jews. While the Quriash fought against Muhammad, the Banu Quraidah did not, but when Muhammad took Mecca he pardoned Quriash, and killed the Banu Quraidah, calling them pigs and monkeys.
The article concludes by asking Mauritanians to be honest and to admit that religion, religious books, and clerics play a role on all the social issues including issue of slavery, which he refers to by reference to Haratin (a “low caste” ethnic group still enslaved, or informally dependent and indentured to former masters).
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)
IHEU is the world federation of organisations making up the global humanist movement, including all non-theistic traditions such as humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, laique, ethical culture, freethought, and skeptic. iheu.org
The IHEU publishes the annual Freedom of Thought Report freethoughtreport.com examining the legal and human rights status of the non-religious in every country of the world.