The Tanzanian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Willibrod Slaa, former parliamentarian and Tanzanian Ambassador to Sweden, Boniface Mwabukusi, a lawyer and activist, and Mdude Nyagali, a political activist, all of whom were arrested between 12 and 13 August simply for criticizing a port deal between Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Amnesty International said today.
The accord 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.
“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,” said Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa.
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 expressionTigere Chagutah, Regional Director, East and Southern Africa, Amnesty International
Slaa, Mwabukusi and Nyagali have all publicly criticized 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 International 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 2023.
Mwabukusi and Nyagali are currently being held at the Central Police Station in Mbeya, having been transferred from Mikumi during the day. According to their lawyer, 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 International that they have all been denied bail. According to the lawyers, the police chiefs in Dar es Salaam and Mbeya said the three critics will be charged with treason but they 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, 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.
By criminalizing public criticism of the port deal, the Tanzanian authorities are clearly trying to snuff out dissent.Tigere Chagutah
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.
“By criminalizing 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,” said Tigere Chagutah.
In October 2022, President Samia Suluhu Hassan 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 2023.
Between June and August 2023, at least 24 people were arrested — and later released — for criticizing the port deal. Rugemeleza Nshala, a lawyer, activist, and former President of the Tanganyika Law Society (TLS), also fled the country in July after facing intimidation and death threats for criticizing 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 criticized the port agreement.