Mauritania 'blasphemy blogger' still held, says minister

The Mkheitir case sparked angry demonstrations in Mauritania, a conservative Muslim nation (AFP Photo/STR)

Nouakchott (AFP) - A Mauritanian blogger who came to world attention after being given the death penalty for blasphemy is being held in "temporary detention" despite serving jail time under a downgraded sentence, the justice minister said Wednesday.

Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir's case was taken up by rights watchdogs after he was sentenced to death on December 24, 2014 for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a blog post.

After he repented, an appeal court on November 9 2017 downgraded the sentence to a two-year jail term.

But he remains in custody, even though lawyers say he should have left jail immediately as he had already spent four years behind bars.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Dia Moctar Malal told the National Assembly that Mkheitir was in "temporary detention" and that "only the Supreme Court can rule on his fate."

"Neither the executive branch nor the legislative branch can impose a decision concerning him," he said.

The authorities had previously said that Mkheitir was being held in "administrative detention awaiting the end of the judicial process," without giving further details or his whereabouts.

That position was blasted by rights groups as a breach of Mauritanian law and fundamental freedoms.

Mkheitir, believed to be aged about 35, was accused of challenging decisions taken by the Prophet and his companions during holy wars in the seventh century.

The case surrounding Mkheitir, also spelt Mkhaitir, unleashed fierce passions in the conservative Muslim state.

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.

The Mkheitir case contributed to Mauritania falling 17 spots in Reporters Without Borders' 2018 World Press Freedom Index, the biggest drop of any African nation.

The death sentence has not been applied in the country since 1987.