DAKAR: A Mauritanian blogger released last week after more than five years in jail on blasphemy charges has said he only “saw the sun six times” during his incarceration, according to Amnesty International, which said he has now arrived in Europe.
Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir, 36, had garnered international support during his years in prison since he was initially sentenced to death in 2014 – later commuted to a jail term – over a blog post that discussed slavery in his conservative West African nation.
He remained locked up despite having already served the sentence – a situation that sparked a chorus of protest from rights groups – but was finally released on July 29 and immediately left the country.
“During five years in prison, I just saw the sun six times,” he said in comments published by Amnesty on Monday.
“So much has changed over the past five years and I am still adjusting to life outside of prison. Now I am free, my hope is to resume my education and return to school.”
Rights group Amnesty, which said Mkheitir had taken refuge in an unspecified European nation, called on Mauritania’s new president Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani to change the law.
“His government should immediately initiate a process to get laws criminalising apostasy repealed. No one should be arbitrarily detained and charged, let alone sentenced to death simply for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said Amnesty campaigner Kine Fatim Diop.
Amnesty has previously called for Mauritania’s new president to take more action to protect human rights defenders and end slavery, which persists in Mauritania despite its official abolition in 1981.
Mkheitir was sentenced to death for blasphemy in December 2014 after he wrote a blog that challenged decisions taken by the Holy Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and his companions during holy wars in the seventh century.
He repented after being given that sentence, prompting an appeal court in November 2017 to downgrade the punishment to a two-year jail term – a decision that sparked protests in the conservative Saharan nation.
Relatives of Mkheitir said his parents, fearing for their lives, had sold their possessions in Mauritania in late 2016 and left for France via Senegal.
The French foreign ministry declined to comment on whether it was possible that Mkheitir might join them there.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has described Mkheitir as “francophone Africa’s longest-held citizen-journalist.”