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Abduction of human rights activist echos chilling trend in Tanzania

Tito Magoti is a human rights activist from Tanzania. Photo courtesy of the Legal and Human Rights Center.

Prominent human rights activist Tito Magoti was abducted in broad daylight by five unknown people in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and is now being detained by police.

Magoti, who works as a public affairs officer with the Legal and Human Rights Center, was abducted on Friday, December 20, 2019, at 10 a.m., as he was on his way to purchase a new mobile phone, according to a statement by the LHRC. Police denied having any information about Magoti's whereabouts when the LHRC first reported him missing on Friday.

Magoti's abduction echoes a chilling trend toward the disappearances of journalists, human rights defenders and opposition leaders in Tanzania since 2015 when President John Magufuli first took office.

Later on Friday, the police confirmed that Magoti had been arrested, along with three other unnamed people, on “various allegations,” according to Dar es Salaam police chief Lazaro Mambosasa, as reported by Reuters. However, police have not released information about where Magoti is being held and no official charges have been made as of Saturday, December 21, according to The Citizen.

As one of the most vocal human rights advocacy groups in the nation, the LHRC has spoken out loudly against diminishing press freedoms and opposition repression under President Magufuli's administration.

Magfuli has denied allegations of cracking down on the media and human rights defenders but ran on a strong campaign to root out corruption in the East African nation. In 2017, he warned that “press freedom has limits.”

Zaituni Njovu, who works with Africa Human Rights Network (AHRN), told Global Voices through a Whatsapp text:

This incident is not good for human rights because everyone has the right to protection and freedom. Mr. Tito [Magoti] has been arrested by civilian police, although at the beginning it was announced to the public that he had been abducted by unknown people. Police [finally] made a formal statement that they arrested him, although they have not said so far [where].

Njovu continued:

It’s true that human rights defenders [HRDs] are hunted like animals in Tanzania and arrested by police and government agencies — especially when you do your job correctly. In short, it’s not wanted for HRDs to speak at all about anything in TZ [Tanzania].

The human rights situation is unsatisfactory here in TZ [Tanzania]. The safety of HRDs is very low and they are often exposed to adverse events until some [even] lose their lives.

Magoti's colleagues and friends continue to search for him by making visits to various police stations in Dar es Salaam, inquiring into his safety and whereabouts:

Our team, together with @THRDCOALITION, has arrived at the Central Police Station in Dar es Salaam this afternoon to continue to search for our brother, @TitoMagoti, without success. Tanzanians continue to raise our voices. #FreeTitoMagoti

Human rights under duress

Magoti, who specializes in human rights in business, has worked with the LHRC for three years in Tanzania, where human rights protections have steadily deteriorated.

In early December, in the Magufuli administration's latest blow to human rights, the government withdrew Tanzanians’ right to “directly seek redress from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”

Netizens came out on Twitter in Magoti's defense, noting his disappearance and arrest as part of a larger human rights crisis in Tanzania.

Jeff Msangi saw Magoti's arrest as a major setback for human rights:

Under the hashtags, #BringBackTito and #FreeTitoMagoti, activists and human rights defenders have launched a campaign on social media to find Magoti and ensure justice for him.

Political scientist Aikande C. Kwayu made a call for compassion on Magoti's behalf:

‘Here we go again’

Magoti's abduction and arrest mark a disturbing trend in Tanzania, prompting Angela Quintal of Committee to Protect Journalists to tweet:

In July 2019, journalist Erick Kabendera was abducted using similar techniques by six plainclothes policemen in broad daylight. For months, he has languished in prison on trumped-up charges of economic crimes and may face up to 15 years in prison.

Kabendera's lawyers have said that his arrest was politically motivated.

As a journalist, Kabendera has been critical of the Magufuli administration and produced reports on Tanzania’s divisive politics for international and local media such as The GuardianAfrican Arguments and The East African.

Kabendera will spend the holidays behind bars as his case has been postponed ten times in court. The next hearing is scheduled for January 2, 2020, the BBC reports.

As Tanzania heads into the new year, human rights defenders, journalists, activists and concerned citizens continue to paza sauti, a Swahili phrase meaning  “raise voices,” so that cases like Magoti's and Kabendera's don't go silent.

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