Rash of abductions and arrests signals ‘dramatic slide’ in human rights in Tanzania

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

A rash of abductions and arrests of human rights activists in Tanzania in December has sparked an international outcry over the “dramatic slide” in human rights protections in the East African nation.

Human rights activist Tito Magoti was charged with three offenses of economic crimes on December 24, 2019, under the Economic and Organized Crimes Act, case no 137 of 2019, according to the Legal and Human Rights Center (LHRC), where Magoti works as a program officer. The alleged crimes include “leading organized crime” and “possession of a computer program designed for the purpose of committing an offense and money laundering,” according to Reuters.

Charges of economic crimes are not eligible for bail and can take years to resolve in court. In recent years, an uptick in abductions, arrests, detentions and trumped-up charges of economic crimes for activists and journalists have amounted to a disturbing trend toward silencing dissent in Tanzania.

“Leading organized crime” as translated by The Economic & Organized Crime Act [Cap 200 R.E. 2002] is to lead a group or gang to undermine the economy. [Journalist] Erick Kabendera was given this [charge], Tito Magoti and Theodory Faustine, also. They won't be able to prove “gangs” and what kind of crimes they do!

The LHRC reported Magoti missing on Friday, December 20, when five unknown men abducted Magoti in the coastal city of Dar es Salaam. Police later confirmed that Magoti had been arrested on “various allegations” but would not reveal his whereabouts for nearly five days.

Tito Magoti was charged with economic crimes after an abduction ordeal and arrest. Photo courtesy of the Legal and Human Rights Center, Tanzania.

Magoti's colleague, tech specialist Theodory Giyan Faustine, 36, was also reportedly arrested on December 19, and later charged with the same three economic crimes as Magoti on December 24.

Giyan “was forced through his mobile phone to lure Tito [Magoti] to a location where he was abducted. They were both handcuffed and blindfolded,” according to testimony provided by Magoti through his lawyers, in a statement released by the LHRC.

The police transferred Magoti to various stations before his friends and family could confirm his whereabouts, while Giyan was detained at one station before he was taken to court alongside Magoti.

According to the LHRC, Magoti told his lawyers that the police questioned him about his online activism and his involvement with several leading online activists and opposition voices. He and Giyani will remain in detention until their hearing scheduled on January 7, 2020.

The LHRC filed a case at Tanzania's High Court against Dar es Salaam police chief Lazaro Mambosasa and attorney general Adelardus Kilagi, over the way Magoti was detained and arrested. LHRC executive director Anna Henga said that holding a citizen more than 24 hours without formal charges or the opportunity to post bail is a crime:

Many netizens are comparing Magoti's situation to journalist Erick Kabendera, who was also abducted in Dar es Salaam in July 2019. Police later admitted they had arrested Kabendera and first attempted to charge him over his citizenship status before switching track. He was eventually charged with economic crimes including money laundering. Kabendera continues to languish behind bars as his hearing has been delayed 10 times.

‘Ditched by abductors’

On December 23, just days after Magoti and Giyani were abducted and arrested, netizens feared that activist and investigative journalist Bollen Ngetti was also abducted. Ngetti often posts political commentary on social media.

The next day, netizens were relieved to learn that Ngetti was found alive. In an interview with Watetezi TV, Ngetti explained his ordeal, saying he was taken by a group of men who described themselves as “security.” They interrogated him about his relationship with former foreign minister Bernard Membe. Ngetti said he denied any relationship with Membe but the abductors took his mobile phone and continued to interrogate him before eventually releasing him within 24 hours of his abduction:

While Ngetti was unscathed by the most recent ordeal, Magoti, Giyani and Kabendera join a growing list of journalists and activists detained and targeted by an increasingly repressive government under the John P. Magfuli administration.

Since 2015, when Magufuli took office, a series of restrictive laws, bills and policies have severely limited free expression in Tanzania. The recent Statistics Act criminalizes the publication of data not approved by the government and the Cybercrimes Act of 2015 grants excessive power to police to monitor content online deemed “fake news” or “hate speech.” These and other laws have made it easier for the government to crack down on anyone suspected of critique or dissent.

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