Dar es Salaam. The saga surrounding the death of a Muslim cleric Sheikh Said Mohammed Ulatule, who died while in remand prison facing charges of terrorism, took a new twist on Wednesday after the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) and the Council of Islamic Organisations in Tanzania demanded an inquest into the incident.
Ulatule, 80, died on March 4, 2023, at the Ukonga Maximum Security Prison. He and his cohort were transferred from the Segerea Prison. They were remanded since 2016 for terrorism charges brought against him and six other members of the Ulatule family.
Others in the case are 96-year-old Suleiman (Mohammed) Abdallah Ulatule, 75-year-old Ali Mohammed Ulatule, 67-year-old Khamisi Mohammed Ulatule, 43-year-old Nassoro Abdallah Ulatule, 32-year-old Rajabu Ali Ulatule, and 27-year-old Ramadhani Khamisi.
The news of the death of Sheikh Said Mohamed Ulatule was first broken by the Secretary of the Council of Islamic Organisations in Tanzania, Sheikh Issa Ponda, on March 7, 2023, where he reported that the cleric died before a judge while explaining the misfortunes the clerics accused of terrorism were facing in prison.
A judge had visited the inmates at the Ukonga Maximum Security Prison to listen to their tribulations when the cleric reportedly fell after trying to inform the judge of what was happening in prison.
On March 10, 2023, the Commissioner General of Prisons (CGP) Ramadhan Nyamka was quoted as saying that the deceased cleric had suffered blood pressure for a long time since he was remanded.
“The last time he attended the clinic for medication was in December 2022,” Nyamka said. “[His] was a natural death. He had historical illnesses that post-mortem investigation confirmed to be the cause of his death.”
But LHRC Executive Director Anna Henga told journalists during a press conference on Wednesday that Nyamka’s explanation conflicted with those from people who knew Sheikh Said Mohamed Ulatule.
“We, therefore, call for an inquest to be conducted that will establish the source of Sheikh Said Mohamed Ulatule’s death,” Henga said during a press conference at LHRC’s headquarters. “The arrangement should also be extended to all the people who died in the hands of security organs.”
The Ulatules were arrested in a 2015 police operation in Mkuranga, Pwani region, after law enforcers accused the family of organising and leading a “terrorist network” that saw its members storming police stations, stealing weapons, and “committing murders.”
Tip of the iceberg
Speaking at the LHRC-organised press conference, Sheikh Ponda said the incident is the tip of the iceberg in a vast sea of mistreatments that powerless Tanzanians are forced to endure under the current justice system.
“These people are remandees but they are living in a prison like people who have been convicted,” Sheikh Ponda said of the Ulatule family. “They sleep where prisoners sleep and eat the food the prisoners eat. Now, this is a very flawed justice system.”
Ponda said the Ulatules are the victims of the “draconian” Terrorism Act of 2002, a law he said “deprives an accused person of all their fundamental rights as a human being,” and which “serves no national interest whatsoever.”
“Arresting someone and detaining them for ten years under the excuse of investigating is incomprehensible and unacceptable,” Ponda intoned. “It is tantamount to torture. We have to make sure changes happen in our justice system. It cannot go on like this.”
Speaking during the press conference, a member of the Ulatule family, Mohammed Said Ulatule, said the arrest of his family members had dealt a severe blow to their family, noting that the family has been adversely affected by their continued detention.
The young Ulatule described his family as predominantly agrarian, which used to produce enough food to feed the people of Mkuranga before “destruction” came. It also used to run a small madrasa that provided an Islamic education to the community.
“[The arrest] was a shock to us all because there has not been even a rumour that our family was engaging in those [terrorist] activities,” the young Ulatule said. “It has left us with a heavy heart, and we are yet to wrap our minds around that.”
Ulatule said his family has yet to repair the destruction he claimed security organs committed in the operation to arrest his family members, including the demolition of their houses and farms.
Drop the charges
It was against this background that LHRC’s Henga demanded that the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) drop the charges against the Ulatules and other Muslim clerics charged with terrorism or produce the accused in court.
“It is increasingly becoming a norm in our country where security organs can arrest a person without evidence, and DPP goes ahead to detain them for even a longer period than that they’d have served if they were convicted,” Henga said during the press conference.
The Ulatule saga resurfaces at a time when President Samia Suluhu Hassan has formed a commission to assess Tanzania’s criminal justice system with the goal of reforming it.
The National Prosecution Services (NPS), the Tanzania Police Force and Prisons are some of the institutions that the commission, under the chairmanship of the former Chief Justice Mohammed Chande Othman, has been tasked to examine.
Inaugurated on January 31, 2023, the commission has until May 30, 2023, to complete the work and submit its preliminary report to President Samia.
Speaking at the inauguration function in the capital Dodoma, President Samia said the commission is one of many efforts that her administration will take to ensure that people working in the criminal justice organs abide by their ethics.
“I think we will all agree that the criminal justice system in this country is in a total chaos,” Samia, who came into power on March 19, 2021, said in her address. “And that is not because we don’t have ethical guidelines in this country but because those guidelines are not being observed.”
“As a consequence, people without power or money rarely get justice in this country,” the Head of State added. “They have been forced to endure things no one should endure. Money decides who gets justice and who doesn’t.”