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Tanzania: Detained critics of UAE port deal must be released immediately

Willibrod Slaa, Boniface Mwabukusi and Mdude Nyagali were detained last week for criticising a port deal between Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates

‘The Tanzanian authorities are clearly trying to snuff out dissent’ - Tigere Chagutah

The Tanzanian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Willibrod Slaa, Boniface Mwabukusi and Mdude Nyagali, who were arrested for criticising a port deal between Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Amnesty International said today.

The agreement sets a legally binding framework for the UAE to collaborate with Tanzania on the development, management and operation of Tanzania’s ports, special economic zones, logistics parks, trade corridors and other related infrastructure.

Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, said:

“The Tanzanian authorities’ crackdown on critics of the UAE port deal reveals their growing intolerance for dissent. The authorities must stop arbitrarily detaining activists simply for peacefully expressing their views and immediately and unconditionally release these activists to ensure the respect of the right to freedom of expression.

“By criminalising public criticism of the port deal, the Tanzanian authorities are clearly trying to snuff out dissent. The Government should instead enable the public to engage in discussions of all matters of public interest, including the UAE port agreement, and ensure all aspects of the agreement are transparent to ensure the public’s meaningful engagement.”

Slaa, a former parliamentarian and Tanzanian Ambassador to Sweden; Mwabukusi, a lawyer and activist, and Mdude Nyagali, a political activist, have all publicly criticised the port deal. Mwabukusi led a court petition arguing that the port accord contains clauses that violate Tanzania’s Constitution and endanger national sovereignty and security.

According to his lawyer, Slaa was arrested by police officers at his home in Mbweni, Dar es Salaam, on 13 August at around 1:00 pm and taken to Mbweni Police Station. He was then taken back to his house, where the police conducted a search and confiscated some of his communication devices. After the search, the police took Slaa to Oysterbay Police Station.

Mwabukusi and Nyagali’s lawyer told Amnesty that he received a distress call from the two activists when they were apprehended by police officers on 12 August, at around 3:00 am.

According to the lawyer, Mwabukusi and Nyagali were arrested near Mikumi in Morogoro region, eastern Tanzania, while traveling to Dar es Salaam from Mbeya, southwest Tanzania. Emmanuel Masonga, an opposition party official, was also arrested with them but released the same day with orders to report to Mikumi Police Station on 14 August.

Mwabukusi and Nyagali are currently being held at the Central Police Station in Mbeya, having been transferred from Mikumi during the day. The two activists have refused to eat or drink anything since their arrest.

On 11 August, Camilius Wambura, Tanzania’s Inspector General of Police, told media that critics of the deal will be apprehended over their “seditious” statements that “call for national protests” against the port deal, which he said were tantamount to “inciting the public into overthrowing the Government”.

Lawyers of the detained critics told Amnesty that they have all been denied bail. According to lawyers, police chiefs in Dar es Salaam and Mbeya said the three critics will be charged with treason but have not yet provided any official information about the specific charges. The lawyers are yet to be presented with any formal charges against Slaa, Mwabukusi and Nyagali, while the prosecution has shared no details of the alleged offence.

Under Tanzania’s Penal Code, treason carries a mandatory death penalty. Treason is also an unbailable offence under section 148 of the Criminal Procedures Act.

On 10 August, Tanzania's High Court in Mbeya dismissed a petition filed by Mwabukusi and four others that challenged the legality of the port agreement. The petition argued that the agreement violates Tanzanian law as the public was only given two days to submit their views, and that the agreement itself violates international law and Tanzania’s domestic law by handing the management of natural resources to a foreign entity.

Controversial agreement

Last October President Samia Suluhu and Ahmed Mahboob Musabih, the CEO of the Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation, signed an agreement on managing ports in Tanzania on behalf of the Emirate of Dubai. Tanzania’s Parliament endorsed the agreement on 10 June this year.

Between June and August this year, at least 24 people were arrested — and later released — for criticising the port deal. Rugemeleza Nshala, a lawyer, activist, and former President of the Tanganyika Law Society, also fled the country last month after facing intimidation and death threats for criticising the deal.

Mwabukusi and Nyagali were previously arrested over the port agreement on 14 July, days after holding a news conference in Dar es Salaam in which they criticised the port agreement.

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