Dar es Salaam. Four human rights organisations Tuesday spoke out against authorities’ decision to detain several people who have been criticising the controversial Tanzania-Dubai intergovernmental agreement, calling for their “immediate and unconditional” release.
Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC), Tanganyika Law Society (TLS), Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), and Jukwaa la Katiba Tanzania (JUKATA) gave a joint statement in Dar es Salaam, condemning the “arbitrary arrests” of the deal’s critics.
“As human rights organisations, we firmly believe that every person is entitled to freedom of speech and opinion on everything happening in the country, including on the port deal because it involves national interests,” LHRC Executive Director Anna Henga said while reading the joint statement.
“People do not deserve to be threatened for exercising their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, backed by regional and international instruments to which Tanzania is a signatory,” Henga added.
Police are holding at least four people for criticising the intergovernmental agreement approved by the parliament on June 10, 2023. They include former ambassador to Sweden Willibrod Slaa, advocate Boniface Mwabukusi and two activists, Mpaluka Said Nyagali and Emmanuel Masonga.
The four people were arrested at different times last week, starting with Mwabukusi and Nyagali, who were arrested on August 12 in Morogoro while travelling to Dar es Salaam. Dr Slaa was arrested over the weekend and reportedly detained at the Oysterbay Police Station. Masonga’s arrest is unclear, and his whereabouts remain mysterious.
The four are among the people who have been very vocal in their opposition to the deal, which would allow Dubai-based logistics company DP World to take over some operations at the Dar es Salaam port, interpreting it as equivalent to selling off the country to foreigners.
The government has dismissed the claims as false. President Samia Suluhu Hassan has described the deal as a “rare opportunity,” urging Tanzanians to stop “quarrelling” and support her administration’s efforts to transform the country.
In their joint statement Tuesday, the human rights organisations said that while the critics were arrested on sedition charges, they were given treason charges at the police stations, which Henga described as the classic definition of “trumped up charges.”
Under Tanzania’s Penal Code, treason carries a mandatory death penalty. Treason is also an unbailable offence under section 148 of the country’s Criminal Procedures Act.
The arrest of the critics came shortly after the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Camilius Wambura warned that police would find and arrest people who have declared nationwide mass demonstrations against the deal, describing their calls to “bring down the government” before 2025 as “treason,” which cannot be “tolerated.”
Wambura’s warning followed a declaration by Mr Mwabukusi, who urged Tanganyikans to prepare to participate in the planned mass demonstrations against the intergovernmental agreement between Tanzania and Dubai.
Mwabukusi called for the mass demonstrations while addressing journalists and supporters outside Mbeya’s High Court minutes after judges dismissed a case against the deal, describing the petition as “barren of fruits.”
Mwabukusi was one of the lawyers representing four Tanzanians who filed the petition because of the agreement’s illegality, unconstitutionality and threat to Tanzania’s sovereignty and national security. But judges found the arguments presented unconvincing, dismissing the case.
In their joint statement Tuesday, LHRC, TLS, THRDC, and JUKATA appealed to President Samia Suluhu Hassan to intervene and secure the release of the detained critics, arguing that the ongoing crackdown on dissidents is counterproductive to the reform agenda that the Head of State launched immediately after assuming the country’s leadership.
“We believe that the detainees have every right to comment on issues of higher national interest, and they’re being attacked for no other reason other than that of expressing their views on the port deal,” their statement reads in part.
The organisations also pointed out that their appeal to President Samia is informed by the gravity of treason charges aimed at the critics, calling them “unprecedented” and threatening to tarnish the good image that the Samia Administration has been building for itself on human rights issues.
Tuesday’s condemnation of the detention of the critics of the controversial deal follows that by global human rights organisation Amnesty International, which also called on authorities to ensure the “immediate and unconditional” release of anyone detained for their criticism of the deal.
In a statement, Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, said the government’s crackdown on critics of the port deal reveals authorities’ growing intolerance for dissent.
“By criminalising public criticism of the port deal, the Tanzanian authorities are clearly trying to snuff out dissent,” Chagutah said. “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,” he added.