Have you ever read an article about racism or religious discrimination? Would you expect that the author’s life would be at risk as a consequence of writing the piece? What would you say if that risk was death by firing squad at the hands of their own government?

Unimaginable isn’t it? Yet this is what happened to Mkhaitir, an accountant from Mauritania, after he published a blog post offering a social critique on the nexus between religion, racism and prejudice, based on his own experiences of discrimination.

“My life was like that of all those who come from my social caste; society makes us feel inferior because of various racist practices. I wrote the article to explain how religion is directly responsible for the injustice of my social class. It included a comparison between the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the present day in Mauritanian society,” he explains.

Imprisoned, isolated and insulted

Soon after the blog was published, Mkhaitir was arrested and charged with apostasy (the abandonment of, or renunciation of, a religion by a person). However, he believes the real reason for his arrest was because the Mauritanian leaders were worried about rising tensions among his caste and wanted to make an example of him.

“There was an awareness of the feeling of injustice starting to form within my social class because of me, and so they decided to suppress this awareness by imprisoning me in an ugly way. I was held in an isolated cell, naked, without a toilet. I used small bottles to do my daily needs, I wasn’t able to shower for seven months, visits were prohibited. I felt persecuted, lonely and isolated —like everyone was trying to push me into madness and psychological depression.”

Mkhaitir was imprisoned for one year before finally being given a trial. Despite apologising for what he had written and explaining he never meant to insult the prophet, he was sentenced to death by firing squad. The court prohibited any discussion of the actual contents of the blog and instead focused on some Facebook posts that Mkhaitir had made in 2010. The death threats made against him and his legal team were so frequent in the time leading up to the trial that three of his lawyers resigned in fear of their own lives.

Mkhaitir appealed his sentence and with the support of the European Union, a number of human rights charities and the UN Working Group of Arbitrary Detention, he eventually had his death sentence quashed. He was given a two-year sentence and a small fine.

However, when the verdict was announced, protests broke out in the court room and so Mkhaitir was placed in “administrative detention”. While here, he was not permitted outside the building he was kept in, had no access to his lawyers, only periodic contact with his family, and was given almost no medical treatment.

Freedom at last

In July 2019, Mkhaitir was finally released and began the long journey to safety in Europe.

“Of course, I felt happy for my freedom, but at the same time, I felt a sense of fear for the future after spending six years behind bars. I wondered if it would be possible to restore my life normally? The emotional impact was serious. It is not easy to overcome an ordeal like this.”

In addition to the psychological scars, Mkahatir’s health had also deteriorated while he was in jail, in particular his eyesight which was severely impaired. This was where Prisoners of Conscience stepped in. Thanks to donors such as yourself, we were able to pay for him to receive treatment and glasses.

“You have supported me by standing by my side and helping me to achieve my goals. Your support has been invaluable. Thank you.”

Mkhatir