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Freed Mauritanian blogger arrives in Europe amid safety concerns

'During five years in prison, I just saw the sun six times,' Mohamed Ould Mkheitir tells Amnesty International
People demonstrated in Mauritania in 2017 against commuting the blogger's death sentence (AFP/File photo)

A Mauritanian blogger who was recently released after spending more than five years in jail on blasphemy charges has arrived in Europe, Amnesty International has said.

"During five years in prison, I just saw the sun six times," Mohamed Ould Mkheitir said in a statement released by the rights group on Monday.

"So much has changed over the past five years and I am still adjusting to life outside of prison. Now I am free, my hope is to resume my education and return to school." 

Mkheitir, now aged 34, was initially sentenced to death in relation to a 2014 blog post that condemned Mauritania's caste system.

In his post, the blogger challenged decisions taken by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions during holy wars in the seventh century.

In 2017, his sentence was commuted to two years in jail, but he remained in prison while conservative groups in Mauritania continued to call for his execution.

Mkheitir was released last week in the final days of the presidency of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who has been replaced by the newly-elected Mohamed Ould Ghazouani.

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Free speech advocates and Western officials, who had denounced Mkheitir's prolonged detention, welcomed his release last week.

On Monday, Amnesty International said the blogger should not have been arrested in the first place.

The group called on Ghazouani, Mauritania's new president, to respect freedom of speech.

"His government should immediately initiate a process to get laws criminalising apostasy repealed," said Kine Fatim Diop, Amnesty's West Africa campaigner.

"No one should be arbitrarily detained and charged, let alone sentenced to death simply for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression."

Early last week, Mkheitir's lawyer told AFP news agency that the blogger was "no longer in Nouakchott", the Mauritanian capital, amid security concerns following his release. 

Amnesty said on Monday that Mkheitir was "immediately taken to Senegal for safety reasons" after he was freed.

He made it to Europe over the weekend, said the rights group, which did not reveal Mkheitir's exact location.