NOUAKCHOTT, MAURITANIA - Nearly six years after his arrest, and two years after he was legally set free, Mauritanian lawyers and international rights groups are calling for authorities to release blogger Mohamed Ould Cheikh Mkhaitir.
Citizen journalist and blogger Mkhaitir was arrested in 2013 and sentenced to death for what the state called blasphemy after he wrote a blog post condemning the use of religion to justify racial discrimination.
In 2017, a Mauritanian court commuted Mkhaitir's sentence to two years — which he had already served, legally liberating him. However, he has remained detained in an undisclosed location.
"He is no longer officially, legally in prison," Fatimata M'Baye, Mkhaitir's lawyer, told VOA. "Today, since November 9th, 2017, he is detained in an undisclosed location — a location even we, his lawyers, don't know."
M'Baye said that multiple requests to see her client have been denied. Mkhaitir, 35 and a father of one child, has not had any communication with his family either.
"The only people who have spoken with him are the people who bring him his food," M'Baye said.
Numerous human rights organizations have called on Mauritania President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who is due to step down in coming months, to release him. But Arnaud Froger, head of the Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders, says the case is indicative of declining press freedom in the Sahara desert country.
"This case of Mohamed Mkhaitir is very symbolic of what's happening in Mauritania as far as press freedom is going," Froger told VOA. "The country's ranked 94 in our press freedom index and registered a very huge drop in places in the last index, mainly because the outgoing president has refused to release Mohamed Mkhaitir."
Mkhaitir's first trial in 2013 sparked protests by Islamists in the capital calling for his death. The post for which he was arrested criticized the use of religion to defend a rigid caste system in Mauritania.
Mkhaitir is of the Haratin ethnicity, sometimes referred to as black Maurs. The Haratin face systematic discrimination as severe as modern slavery — a problem the Mauritanian government asserts no longer exists.
Since the court commuted Mkhaitir's sentence in 2017, the president has argued that Mkhaitir must be kept in detention for his own safety, and for the safety of the Mauritanian people.
"We've been told, no, it's not just for his security, it's for the security of the 3 million or 4 million people of Mauritania — that his release would be a threat to the stability of the country," M'Baye said. "I say that … I don't understand. I don't understand."
Her disbelief is shared by rights organizations.
"That you keep a blogger behind bars to ensure his own safety and the safety of Mauritanians is both outrageous and false. That the pressure put by Islamists on this case cannot justify to keep someone in detention no matter the court's decision," Froger said.
Reporters Without Borders is one of 11 organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, that signed a letter to Abdel Aziz last week calling for Mkhaitir's release.
Incoming president Mohamed Ould Ghazouani has said nothing about the case.