Sherif Mansour is the Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
This week’s assassination of Jordanian commentator Nahed Hattar as he went to court to face blasphemy accusations was shocking. But is a shooting death by a suspected extremist more, or less, barbaric than a government putting one of its own citizens to death on the same charge? Authorities in Mauritania plan to do just that.
Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed, a blogger also known as Mohamed Ould M’Kaitir, is on death row in the western North African country, convicted of blasphemy in 2014. His sentence was upheld in April this year, and he awaits a final decision from Mauritania’s Supreme Court.
Mohamed had frequently written articles that criticized some Islamic religious beliefs and conservative practices in Mauritania. The piece that got him arrested in January 2014 and landed him on death row was published on the news website Aqlame on Dec. 31, 2013, and titled, “Religion, religiosity, and craftsmen.” It criticized Mauritania’s caste system — an extremely delicate subject in a country that still practices slavery.
In a letter he wrote from prison to the Committee to Protect Journalists this month, Mohamed said his only crime was “expressing my ideas in an article about the reality we live in — a reality that is known to all but few dare to expose.”
Mohamed cannot rely on support inside his own country. His article prompted nationwide demonstrations in January 2014, and a local preacher announced he had three days to repent or the preacher would pay 4,000 euros to anyone who killed the blogger, according to news reports. Those who have dared to speak out on his behalf, including leading women’s rights activist Aminetou Mint El-Moctar, are labeled infidels. The head of a radical Islamist movement threatened El-Moctar with death, declared it lawful to seize her family members and assets and said, “Those who kill or poke out her eyes will be rewarded by Allah.” Mohamed’s father has publicly denounced him, and lawyers have shied away from his case.
Even backing by the United Nations and international human rights groups may not be enough to save Mohamed’s life. In his letter to the CPJ, he appealed for support from the American public and the U.S. government: “I believe this in my heart; freedom will not be defeated. Hence, I direct my appeal to a country that has shown the world the meaning of humanity, the meaning of the beauty of life, and the meaning of freedom.”
Yet the case has global implications, particularly in the wake of Hattar’s assassination. Blasphemy accusations have landed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi with 10 years imprisonment and 1,000 lashes. The liberal blogger, who advocated against terrorism, has already been flogged 50 times and his flogging could resume anytime, endangering his life. Blasphemy also already led extremists to hack to death at least five bloggers in Bangladesh in recent years. Both state and nonstate actors leverage the accusation to commit censorship.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo last year, in which 12 people — including eight journalists — were killed, set off a fierce worldwide debate about the correct balance between protecting freedom of expression and countering violent extremism. The irony of Mauritanian authorities condemning the killings, which were carried out in the name of blasphemy, even as they sentenced to death a blogger on the same charge, was lost on many.
As this debate continues, and as the standards of freedom of expression struggle to stay afloat, the focus should be at least on saving the lives of those expressing their opinions. This is why it is essential that Mauritania get the message: Violent extremism won’t be tolerated even when — especially when — perpetrated by government.