A Mauritanian high school student faces the death penalty over blasphemy


The Saudi mosque, one of Nouakchott's twelve mosques. Image by François COLIN via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.5.

On July 26, 2023, Mariya Oubed, a 19-year-old high school student in Mauritania, found herself confronting grave charges of blasphemy. The accusation against her stems from allegations that she disrespected the Prophet Muhammad in a written exam.

As she now faces the possibility of receiving the death penalty under Article 306 of the Mauritanian Penal Code, the seriousness of the situation cannot be understated.

How the blasphemy case developed

On July 3, 2023, the exam paper containing the blasphemous statements was initially shared on Facebook without revealing the student's name. This action was taken by a teacher who had visited the specialized facility established by the Ministry of Education for grading national high school exams, a key gateway to higher education.

The post went viral, leading to an enormous wave of animosity aimed at the unnamed student. Strict regulations in Mauritania have made it challenging to access the exam paper online due to its prohibited distribution.

Following the news spreading on social media, hundreds of demonstrators rallied for an investigation into the exam paper after Friday prayers on July 7. The protesters criticized the government for delaying the case's referral to court and demanded that the student's identity be made public and that they be prosecuted. Riot police intervened, requesting the demonstrators to disperse as they lacked a permit for these protests.

Shortly thereafter, the Association of Mauritanian Ulamas (religious scholars), the highest religious authority in Mauritania, criticized the government for its delayed action, sparking public outrage. In response to public demands to identify the student and carry out the death penalty, the Association issued a fatwa recommending the application of capital punishment once the student’s guilt is proven. 

A few days later, Member of Parliament Mohamed Bouy made an attempt to publicly embarrass Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Ghazouani with this case, by circulating a document in which he replaced the name of the prophet in the exam content with that of the president, as part of a populist action aimed at critiquing the government. This maneuver resulted in a substantial controversy and heightened the pressure on the government to take action against Oubed.

On July 26, Oubed was placed in pretrial detention on accusations of “disrespecting the Prophet and mocking him” and using social media “to undermine the sacred values of Islam.” This information was reported by an official from the Public Prosecutor's Office in the capital city, Nouakchott, who did not disclose the specific content of the exam paper.

In a statement, Oubed's family denied any association between Mariya and the contentious exam paper. They also revealed that the young woman has been dealing with mental health issues and made an appeal for empathy from the Islamic community and the Mauritanian people:

Our daughter did not follow an immoral path, think atheistically, or deviate from accepted social norms. Anyone who knows her agrees that she is the model of moral rectitude and modesty. However, we observed withdrawal symptoms, a reduction in speech, fatigue, and excessive sleep. These indicators point to possible underlying psychological issues.

Members of the Association of Religious Scholars, however, slammed the assertion.

According to Al-Quds newspaper, this case puts the Mauritanian authorities in a difficult position, caught between pressure from the general public calling for the young woman’s execution and scrutiny from the international community advocating for freedoms.

This dilemma is further complicated by the fact that the young woman is affiliated with the Haratin (former slaves), a group that has endured decades of enslavement in Mauritania. Al-Quds newspaper summarized the situation:

If a swift legal decision is not made, this case is predicted to lead to significant protests. It follows a 2014 incident that was sparked by an insulting article by Ould Mkhaitir. He received a death sentence, and, until 2019, demonstrations calling for his execution persisted. Due to pressure from the international human rights community, the government struggled to carry out the sentence.

Blasphemy laws in Mauritania

On April 27, 2018, the Mauritanian parliament introduced a significant legal amendment, replacing Article 306 of the Criminal Code. The revised law imposes the death penalty for those convicted of “blasphemous speech” and acts considered “sacrilegious.” Unlike the former Article 306, the updated law eliminates the possibility of substituting prison sentences for the death penalty, even if the offender promptly repents. 

According to Al Jazeera, Mauritania fortified the law in response to a local court’s directive to release blogger and anti-slavery activist Mohammed Ould Shaikh Ould Mkhaitir, popularly known as Cheick Mkhaitir.

In 2014, Cheick Mkhaitir was condemned to death on charges of blasphemy and insulting the prophet. This ruling was rooted in a post he had written, critiquing the exploitation of specific religious texts to justify slavery in Mauritania.

Despite his initial two-year sentence, Mkhaitir spent five and a half years behind bars, mostly in solitary confinement. He was eventually released and subsequently left the country.

How do blasphemy laws affect Mauritania's human rights and freedom of expression?

When the law was ratified in 2018, UN experts warned that its enactment will “gravely violate international law” and infringe upon freedom of expression, saying further that, “This revision will further muzzle the right to freedom of expression in Mauritania and set the stage for incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence against persons on the basis of religion or belief.”

In today's interconnected world, social media platforms have transformed into spaces where polarized views and intolerance thrive. This trend is not exclusive to Mauritania it is prevalent in many other Islamic nations. Those who voice dissenting opinions or question religious matters often become targets of cyberbullying, in extreme cases, even violence

In addition to undermining the values of free speech, this online animosity puts the safety and wellbeing of those caught in the crossfire at risk. Any attempt to discuss religious matters frequently generates accusations of blasphemy, apostasy, and atheism, which have grave repercussions.

The recent incident involving Mariya Oubed highlights the urgent need to review how blasphemy and free speech are treated under the Mauritanian law. 

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