Dar es Salaam. The Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) has called for reforms in Tanzania’s criminal justice system, observing that a significant number of the violations of people’s basic rights are the direct result of unfair and unjust laws governing the justice system in the country.
The call is part of the recommendations contained in the 2021 Human Rights Report by the Dar es Salaam-based advocacy group launched on Monday at the Serena Hotel in Tanzania’s commercial capital of Dar es Salaam and attracted participants from a wide range of human rights stakeholders in Tanzania.
According to the report, which is the 20th since LHRC started releasing such reports, the situation of civil and political rights slightly deteriorated in 2021 compared to the year 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic said to have “significant impacts” on such rights.
As far as Tanzania’s criminal justice system is concerned, the report names lengthy pre-trial detention as “the biggest challenge facing remandees.”
Respondents, including community members, lawyers, and NGO officials, pointed out that lengthy pre-trial detention of remandees is “a serious challenge in Tanzania,” contributing to prison overcrowding and violation of the fundamental rights of accused persons.
LHRC documented at least 11 cases of people who are in prison for up to six to 12 years awaiting trial/hearing before the court. Through social media monitoring, LHRC also monitored and documented an additional eight cases/allegations of lengthy pre-trial detention, which has largely contributed to prison overcrowding in Tanzania.
“Pre-trial detention undermines the chance of a fair trial and the presumption of innocence,” the 672-page report observes. “It also puts remandees at a greater risk of coercion through torture or ill-treatment and poor legal representation, especially where the accused person is poor.”
Other challenges in the criminal justice system documented by the LHRC include delays in investigations and constant adjournment of cases; overcrowding in detention facilities; and misuse of loopholes in plea-bargaining.
Others are delays in taking accused persons to court; violations of rights of prisoners and remandees; lack of dedicated interventions and adequate resources for the social reintegration of ex-offenders and remandees; and denial of bail for non-bailable offences. According to the report, currently, 53 per cent of the prison population in Tanzania is pre-trial detainees.
As for the plea bargaining arrangement, key concerns documented by the LHRC include coercion of accused persons; misuse of power due to the leverage enjoyed by the prosecutor; reduction of the role and influence of magistrates and judges; and the risk of accused persons pleading guilty for crimes they did not commit, just so they can taste freedom again.
LHRC calls for the office of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) to perform an oversight role of checking the quality and extent of evidence before admitting cases to court.
“This will reduce the backlog of cases which stay long in courts while the same authority, in collaboration with the [Director of Criminal Investigation] DCI, working on completion of the investigation,” the report advises.
Also, the Ministry of Constitutional and Legal Affairs and the Judiciary should take measures to address this problem, including having net controls against abuse of investigation processes.
This, the report says, includes requiring completion of investigation before a case is brought to court and demanding an increased pace of investigation by setting a minimum time within which a case has to be heard from the date when it was filed.