Friday, December 26, 2014

Freedom of expression & freedom of conscience in Mauritania – Mauritania's first death sentence for "apostasy"

Even if a country tolerates minority religions, it can't claim to have religious freedom unless it is possible for individuals to decide to change from one religion to another without having to fear significant penalties.

Now, it so happens that in a large number of Muslim-majority countries—not all of them, by any means, but a sizable proportion—converting from Islam to another religion is, at the very least, legally problematic (as carefully documented, for example, in Ann Mayer's excellent and totally non-Islamophobic book Islam and Human Rights).  It is perfectly OK to convert from a non-Muslim religion to Islam, of course, but converting from Islam to another religion can get you into serious legal trouble (here's one relatively mild example) and/or make you a target for unofficial violence (which is likely to go unpunished).  In some Muslim-majority countries, apostasy (from Islam) is actually a capital crime—that is, it carries the death penalty. (As far as I know, there are currently no non-Muslim countries where apostasy is a capital crime.) And that's not just an empty threat. As some recent cases from several countries including Iran and Sudan have reminded us, people accused of converting from Islam to Christianity or other non-Muslim religions really do get charged with apostasy and face possible execution.

Furthermore, laws against apostasy are often used to prosecute, and persecute, Muslims who have no intention at all of leaving Islam.  Sometimes it's enough to advance interpretations of Islam that some people find insufficiently orthodox, or to express views that are deemed excessively secular or anti-clerical. In most cases, such actions merely trigger charges of blasphemy (which can be lethal enough), but in other cases they can get you labeled an apostate, which is even more serious—as the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was startled to discover earlier this year.

=> Furthermore, laws against apostasy are often used to prosecute, and persecute, Muslims who have no intention at all of leaving Islam.  Sometimes it's enough to advance interpretations of Islam that some people find insufficiently orthodox, or to express views that are deemed excessively secular or anti-clerical. In most cases, such actions merely trigger charges of blasphemy (which can be lethal enough), but in other cases they can get you labeled an apostate, which is even more serious—as the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was startled to discover earlier this year.

Someone else who just got this surprise was Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir in Mauritania. On Wednesday he received Mauritania's first-ever death sentence for apostasy. I guess that's a milestone of sorts, but not one that I would regard as worthy of celebration.  However, according to the AFP report (below), "The verdict was met with shouts of joy from the gallery, while on the streets there were jubilant scenes as cars sounded their horns."

The joke is that Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir is not an apostate at all, but he probably doesn't find that joke very funny.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S. As I couldn't help musing back in January:
If Voltaire or Thomas Jefferson or David Hume had been told that this sort of thing would still be a common occurrence in the 21st century, I wonder what they would have thought. I suspect that Voltaire and Jefferson would have been skeptical, but probably not Hume.
==============================
 France 24 (AFP)
December 25, 2014
Mauritania issues first apostasy death sentence

NOUAKCHOTT (AFP) - A Muslim man has become the first person to be sentenced to death for apostasy in Mauritania since independence in 1960 after a court ruled he had written something blasphemous.

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed, who is around 30 years old, fainted when the ruling was read out late Wednesday in a court in Nouadhibou in the northwest of the country, a judicial source told AFP.

The defendant -- who has been detained since January 2 and pleaded not guilty to the charge when proceedings opened on Tuesday -- was revived and taken to prison, the source added.

Sharia, or Islamic, law is in effect in Mauritania but the enforcement of strict punishments -- such as floggings -- have been rare since the 1980s.

Mauritania has the death penalty but has not executed anyone since 1987, according to human rights organisation Amnesty International.

Such sentences were mainly reserved for murder and acts of terrorism.

During the hearing the judge told Mohamed that he was accused of apostasy "for speaking lightly of the Prophet Mohammed" in an article which was published briefly on several Mauritanian websites.

In it he challenged some the decisions taken by Islam's prophet and his companions during the holy wars, the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

He also accused Mauritanian society of perpetuating "an iniquitous social order" and defended those at the bottom rungs of society who he described as "marginalised and discriminated against from birth".
[JW: Reading between the lines of some other reports like this one, I get the impression that Mohamed's most serious offense was criticizing the oppressive quasi-racial caste system in Mauritania and the persistence of slavery, which has been officially illegal in Mauritania since 1981 (and technically a crime since 2007) but is very much alive in practice.]
Mohamed, named by some local media outlets as Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir, explained that it was "not his intention to harm the prophet", the source added.

His lawyer asked for leniency as he said his client was repentant but the judge agreed to the prosecutor's request for the death penalty.

No information was immediately available on whether Mohamed would appeal.

Local Islamic organisations said it was the first time text critical of Islam had been published in the country.

The verdict was met with shouts of joy from the gallery, while on the streets there were jubilant scenes as cars sounded their horns.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home