Tanzania arrests a sign of ‘autocracy’

A week after their South African and Ugandan colleagues were deported from the country — after being arrested for “the promotion of homosexuality” — Tanzanian human rights activists have yet to hear whether charges will be brought against them.

The group of 13 were arrested in Dar es Salaam on October 17, when the police raided a legal consultation meeting convened by the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (Isla) and Community Health Services and Advocacy (Chesa).

A day after the arrest, Lazaro Mambosasa, the head of police, said the “criminals” had violated Tanzanian law. Bail was revoked on October 20, and then granted again on October 26.

Isla and Chesa said their meeting had been “to get more instructions and evidence on a case that was to be before a court”. The case challenges the government’s decision to limit certain health services.

In a statement, Human Rights Watch said: “While it is true that ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ is criminalised in Tanzania under a colonial-era law, by no measure of the imagination is it a crime to hold a meeting.”

In fact, the meeting, which had been organised by Isla, whose mandate is to advance women’s and sexual rights, was not even about homosexuality, said Human Rights Watch. “Its aim was to explore the possibility of mounting legal challenges to the government’s ban on drop-in centres serving key populations at risk of HIV, as well as the ban on importation of water-based lubricants, an essential HIV prevention tool.”

The 13 were held without charges being brought against them, with numerous bail applications being denied. Once released and granted bail, the two South Africans and one Ugandan made their way home to their respective countries. The 10 Tanzanians, however, still face uncertainty.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity, a lawyer for the group said the case was with the director of public prosecutions’ office and that it was uncertain when they would be informed about whether charges will be laid.

Graeme Reid, director of Human Rights Watch’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights programme, called the situation in Tanzania “particularly egregious”. “The anti-LGBT crackdown, and the attack on healthcare services, is part of a broader offensive against civil society in Tanzania and a symptom of increasingly autocratic rule,” said Reid.

In yet another example of this “increasingly autocratic rule”, the police arrested the leader of the country’s opposition party after he delivered a speech on the economy.

In his speech on October 29 Zitto Kabwe, leader of the Alliance for Change and Transparency, spoke about “the quality of life of Tanzanians, the state of the economy and how to defeat the ruling party”.

According to Bloomberg, the party’s lawyers are “trying to establish specific reasons for the arrest”. “This is testimony to the breakdown of the rule of law in Tanzania,” says Reid.

The lawyer for the Tanzanians added that a law association to which he belongs had, “in their internal communications, made it clear that, when it comes to LGBTI issues, they don’t want to be on the frontlines”.

“They do not want us to represent queer people. But we will continue representing them. It is our duty.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

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Carl Collison
Carl Collison
Carl Collison is a freelance journalist who focuses primarily on covering queer-related issues across Africa

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