Tanzania’s High Court ruled Friday that prominent opposition leader Freeman Mbowe and his three co-accused all have a case to answer terrorism-related charges, paving the way for defence proceedings to begin on March 4.
In his 30-minute submission, Judge Joachim Tiganga said the court “without going into details”, felt the evidence presented by the prosecution was enough to compel the defendants to respond on five of the six counts they are charged with.
The ruling came after state prosecutors abruptly finished filing evidence against the main opposition Chadema party leader on Tuesday this week after calling just 13 of 24 listed witnesses since the trial began August 31 last year.
The move fuelled speculation that the Dar es Salaam court might release him, ending a saga that has raised concerns about the state of democracy and the rule of law under President Samia Suluhu Hassan.
“I have spent two days going through the evidence provided by the prosecution... The court believes that all the accused have a case to answer,” the judge said.
Mbowe was arrested on July 21, 2021, along with a number of other senior party officials, in a night-time police raid just hours before they were to hold a public forum to demand constitutional reforms.
The 60-year-old, who has accused police of torturing him during his nearly seven months in custody, was charged with terrorism financing and conspiracy.
Mr Mbowe’s co-accused are Halfan Bwire Hassan, Adam Hassan Kasekwa and Mohamed Abdallah Ling’wenya.
They are accused of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism and economic crime. Mr Mbowe is specifically charged with contributing Tsh600,000 ($240) to sponsor an operation to blow up an unspecified number of fuel stations.
Judge Tiganga is the third judge appointed to preside over the controversial trial after the previous two, Elinaza Luvanda and Mustapha Siyani, recused themselves midway for differing reasons.
Judge Luvanda withdrew in early September after Mr Mbowe stated in open court that he and his co-defendants did not trust him to dispense fair justice.
Judge Siyani announced his decision to step down on October 8, citing additional responsibilities following his appointment by President Suluhu as principal judge of the High Court.
After the ruling Friday, Mr Mbowe’s defence counsel Peter Kibatala told the court that Chadema intends to call 11 witnesses, including himself, and table 10 exhibits.
The Mbowe’s arrest and trial have remained a big thorn in the flesh for Suluhu’s administration amid widespread demands to restore democratic values and political space in Tanzania that were stifled during the Magufuli era.
President Suluhu took over in March following the death of her predecessor John Magufuli, nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for his uncompromising style and crackdown on dissent.
Chadema has accused Suluhu’s government of meddling in the case and said the arrests reflected a deepening slide into “dictatorship”.
Against this backdrop, pro-democracy activists within and outside Tanzania have subsequently labelled the charges brought against Mbowe, particularly those related to terrorism, as trumped-up and “politically motivated”.
Crowds of supporters cheered Mbowe as he arrived at the court on Friday, with representatives from foreign embassies also present at the hearing.
The government has made seemingly conciliatory overtures to the opposition in recent days.
Last week, the government lifted a Magufuli-era ban on four Swahili-language newspapers, including Daima -- a daily owned by Mbowe.
On Wednesday, President Suluhu met in Brussels with Chadema’s deputy chairman Tundu Lissu, who was the party’s candidate in the 2020 presidential election but lives in exile in Belgium following an attempt on his life in 2017.
Mr Lissu said he reiterated the party’s demands for the trial to be annulled, and Mr Mbowe set free “unconditionally” during his first private meeting with the President.
Ms Suluhu, however, refused to be drawn into commenting on the trial in an earlier interview with a Deutsche Welle reporter in Brussels, saying only “the courts should be left to decide”.