Tanzanian opposition leader Freeman Mbowe will remain in custody at the Ukonga Prison on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, for another week after the state on Friday asked the Kisutu resident magistrate’s court in Dar es Salaam for a further postponement on grounds that formalities for transferring the case to the High Court which has proper jurisdiction to hear such cases had not been completed.
Mbowe, the chairman of opposition party Chadema is facing terrorism-related charges. Prosecutors had earlier said investigations into the allegations against Mr Mbowe and his three co-accused had been concluded thereby paving the way for a formal hearing to begin.
The case was postponed to August 13 on what the prosecution called procedural hitches. Earlier, Thursday’s one-day postponement caused by ‘’technical’’ hitches had ruined a last-minute state attempt to conduct the proceedings via video-conference rather than have the suspects physically appear in court as placard-carrying pro-Mbowe protesters gathered outside.
The case has drawn wide concerns locally and internationally on continued harassment of the opposition and is seen as the biggest litmus test so far for President Samia Suluhu’s resolve to restore Tanzania’s democratic space and political tolerance that all but disappeared during the tenure of her predecessor John Magufuli.
Friday’s postponement triggered fresh accusations against the state’s delaying tactics in the face of increasing calls for Mbowe to be treated fairly in light of the seriousness of the charges he is facing. He has been at the forefront of fresh calls for the revival of a stalled constitutional reforms process since President Samia took over.
In a formal statement issued Thursday, Amnesty International called on Tanzania to “promptly provide evidence to substantiate the charges against Mbowe, or else release him.”
The organisation said the continued detention of Mbowe indicated a “growing crackdown against the political opposition” under the new administration.
According to Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa, the timing of Mbowe’s arrest in Mwanza, hours before he was due to launch a fresh push for a new constitution for Tanzania, raised questions around whether or not it was “a tactic to silence critical voices.”
“This case casts doubt on whether the encouraging steps taken by the Tanzania government towards allowing greater freedom of expression and association in the country since President Samia inauguration will continue or whether repression will once again be the order of the day,” Ms Muchena said.
Speaking on Wednesday as she wound up a visit to Tanzania, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said she had expressed US concerns over Mbowe’s “treatment and imprisonment” in face-to-face talks with President Samia at Ikulu in Dar es Salaam.
“I also held candid discussions with Tanzania opposition leaders on the path to a more open, democratic, and just future,” Ms Nuland said.
US ambassador to Tanzania Donald Wright tweeted on Thursday that “one of the fundamental principles of democracy is that a person accused of a crime has the right to due process and equal and transparent treatment under the law. It is important that these principles be upheld.”
Freedom of speech
Both the UK and Canadian high commissions in Dar es Salaam said they were “closely following” the case against Mbowe. The Canadian embassy said it advocated a “strong” democracy that included, among other things, “fair and transparent legal processes for all citizens” alongside freedom of speech and assembly.
Britain’s deputy high commissioner to Tanzania, Rick Shearn, said on Thursday it was “important that all citizens are treated equally and fairly in accordance with their rights before the law.”
Mbowe was arrested in a Mwanza hotel with other party supporters on July 21 as they prepared a meeting to discuss proposals for a new constitution.
His colleagues were later released, but Mbowe was moved to Dar es Salaam and arraigned in court on July 26.
He was charged with ‘Conspiracy contrary to Section 4 and 27 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act’ and ‘Violation of the Economic and Organized Crime Control Act’ in relation to terrorism financing.
Details are scanty but both offences are unbailable by Tanzanian law.
Addressing the constitutional reforms issue, Foreign Affairs Minister Liberata Mulamula said on Thursday that President Samia had told her that "she couldn’t stop US government representative Ms Nuland from meeting with opposition parties, but the government's message is that Tanzania for now is more concerned with building the economy and grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, not a new constitution."