Press Release
Tanzania: End harassment of human rights defenders

DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) and the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) are concerned about the growing number of violations against human rights defenders (HRDs) in Tanzania. HRDs who challenge the violation of land rights, civil and political rights, health-related rights, and minority rights are often targeted by the state, through arbitrary detention, judicial and administrative harassment, reprisals, and office raids.

Since 13 July, the Tanzania Police Force has detained at least eight (8) HRDs in connection with the long-running land wrangles between local Masaai tribes, the government, and foreign investors in Loliondo.

The latest arrest involved Maanda Ngoitiko, renowned HRD and founder of the Pastoral Women’s Council (PWC), who was charged and detained on espionage-related charges as a result of her alleged communication with Swedish blogger Ms Susanna Nordlund. She was held for three days and later released on bail.

On 19 July, seven (7) HRDs were arrested on espionage-related charges for cooperating with Ms Nordlund, one of the most outspoken voices covering the wrangles in Loliondo. On 22 July, lawyer Shilinde Ngalula, who was sent by THRDC and the Legal Human Rights Center to follow up on the arrest and detention of the HRDs without formal charge, was also detained and accused of inciting the community and espionage. Mr Ngalula’s arrest came after a statement from the head of the Zanzibar Police Force urging lawyers to let police handle suspects in the absence of legal representation.

Away from land issues, the government has also restricted the space for freedom of assembly and association. It recently prohibited all public demonstrations ahead of the “Countrywide Defiance Day” – an opposition led campaign. The Minister of Information and Sports warned that any media or journalist who covers the event on 1 September will face stern action.

On 15 August, the Deputy Minister of Health unexpectedly visited the offices of Community Health Education Services and Advocacy (CHESA) to inspect compliance with the recent ban on the sale and import of lubricants. The Deputy Minister confiscated a number of documents and some staff members were asked to report to the police for interrogation. The Deputy Minister also accused CHESA of promoting same-sex relations.

“There have been welcome signs that the government is willing to engage with civil society to improve the human rights situation in Tanzania, for instance through constructive dialogue on the country’s Universal Periodic Review,” said Onesmo Olengurumwa, National Coordinator of THRDC. “However, that makes this crackdown all the more disconcerting. We discourage a situation where we take one step forward and two steps backwards.”

The recent events come at a time when civil society space in Tanzania is under pressure from new legal restrictions, such as the recently adopted 2015 Cyber Crimes Act, which has been used by authorities to prosecute individuals for their legitimate human rights activities.

On 11 August, weekly paper Mseto was banned for three years for “irresponsible reporting” under the restrictive Newspaper Act of 1976, which allows the Minister to ban a newspaper at his own discretion. Meanwhile, Independent Television (ITV) was given a warning letter by Tanzania Regulatory authorities for hosting political activists that are critical of the government.

“Human rights defenders play a pivotal role in holding governments accountable to respect universally recognised rights”, said Hassan Shire, Executive Director of DefendDefenders, “Tanzania has been one of the most peaceful and stable countries in the East and Horn of Africa. Ensuring the safety and protection of human rights defenders is paramount for any functioning democracy and frustrating their legitimate work hinders the progressive realisation of human rights.”

We call on the Tanzanian government to:

  • Ensure that HRDs operate in a safe and enabling environment without fear of reprisals and intimidation;
  • Immediately cease the harassment of HRDs and release those that are detained on trumped up charges relating to their legitimate work;
  • Respect the rule of law and protect rights of all Tanzanians as enshrined in the 1977 Constitution;
  • Develop and strengthen a constructive dialogue with civil society and work with HRDs as development partners;
  • Implement the EU Parliament Resolution of 2015 on the Situation of Pastoral communities in Loliondo.

For further information please contact:

Hassan Shire, Executive Director, DefendDefenders on [email protected]

Onesmo Paul Olengurumwa, National Coordinator, THRDC on [email protected]