A second judge has withdrawn from the terrorism case facing Tanzania’s opposition leader, Freeman Mbowe, raising questions as to when it will be concluded and its possible outcome.
Judge Mustapha Siyani stepped down on Wednesday after dismissing an objection raised by defence attorneys over the admissibility of a police statement made by one of Mbowe’s co-accused, Adam Hassan Kasekwa, on grounds that it was recorded under duress.
Judge Siyani was appointed Principal Judge of the High Court by President Samia Suluhu Hassan on October 8, 2021, hardly a month after taking over the Mbowe case from Judge Elinaza Luvanda on September 10, cited the additional responsibilities of his new appointment, which also include administrative duties, as the reason for his withdrawal from the Mbowe case.
Judge Luvanda had earlier also recused himself after Mr Mbowe stated in open court that he and his three co-defendants did not trust him to dispense fair justice in the case.
But Chadema secretary general John Mnyika questioned Judge Siyani's decision to step down immediately after ruling in favour of the prosecution in the trial-within-a-trial involving the admissibility of Kasekwa’s initial caution statement to police as prosecution evidence.
“It has nothing to do with the judge’s new duties he is only trying to appease his own guilty conscience over this particular ruling,” Mr Mnyika said.
The trial has been described by pro-democracy defenders as “politically motivated.” Mbowe, 59, chairman of the main opposition Chadema party, had been leading fresh calls for a new constitution since President Samia. He was arrested on July 21 and has been in detention since.
The case has been going at the High Court’s Corruption and Economic Crimes Division in Dar es Salaam since August 31.
Further proceedings have been put on hold until a new judge is assigned. Mbowe and his three co-accused, Kasekwa, Halfan Bwire Hassan and Mohamed Abdillahi Ling’wenya, are still in custody.
They are charged with conspiring to commit terrorist acts including blowing up fuel stations. Mbowe is also accused of committing economic sabotage in supplying funds for the operation. All are non-bailable offences under Tanzanian law.
Chadema party stalwart and former legislator Godbless Lema, currently living in exile in Canada, described the judge’s withdrawal as “just another diversion tactic devised by the state to delay the case’s conclusion even further.”
In his ruling on the trial-within-a-trial which took about two weeks, Judge Siyani said the defence had failed to provide “sufficient proof" that Kasekwa was tortured by police before or during the taking of his statement.
In August, President Samia ordered a revision of Tanzania’s bail laws for criminal cases and police regulations that allow for extended detention periods for suspects during investigations.
Speaking at an annual meeting of senior police officers in Dar es Salaam, she said such practices tended to deprive suspects of their basic civil rights while also causing congestion in prisons.
“For cases which clearly appear difficult to handle, it would be best to allow suspects to be out on bail until the final court ruling. If a case is not so complicated then it should be concluded speedily,” she said without directly referring to the Mbowe case.