Let Our People Go: Plight of activists and lawyers held in Tanzania without charge sparks protests

By Ihsaan Haffejee 25 October 2017

A group of about 100 people gathered outside the Tanzania High Commission in Pretoria to protest against the Tanzanian government’s detention of 13 individuals, two of whom are South African citizens. The East African nation accused the arrested individuals of promoting homosexuality, seized their passports and has held them in jail without charge for a week. By IHSAAN HAFFEJEE.

On Tuesday 17 October, Tanzanian police raided a legal consultation convened by the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA) and Community Health Services and Advocacy (CHESA) and detained 13 individuals.

According to a joint statement from both ISLA and CHESA the meeting was held in order to obtain further instructions and evidence on an upcoming case which they planned to file before a court. “The case concerns a challenge to the Tanzanian government’s decision to limit the provision of certain health services that it had previously provided,” the statement read.

Among those detained is well-known human rights lawyer, Sibongile Ndashe, the executive director of ISLA. Those detained include nine Tanzanians, two South Africans and one Ugandan. Three of the 13 are lawyers while the 10 others are activists.

On Tuesday Ndashe’s mother, Winnie, joined the activists in their demonstrations outside the Tanzanian High Commission in Pretoria and held up a sign reading “Tanzania free my daughter”.

She said that she was concerned at the way her daughter was arrested and the fact that she is still being held without any charge.

Since she was a child she has never done anything wrong, all she does is fight for other people’s rights,” said Ndashe.

My daughter advocates for the freedoms of other people so hearing that she was arrested while fighting for other people’s rights was something that worried me but I’m confident that she will be released because God is always there.”

Activists protest outside the Tanzania High Commission in Pretoria against the Tanzanian government’s detention of 13 individuals, two of whom are South African citizens. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee.

Human rights groups from South Africa and around the world have come out strongly condemning the actions of the Tanzanian government, labelling it as a human rights violation. Critics also claim that the Tanzanian government is trying to intimidate those who are attempting to bring legal action against the government. The Tanzanian government has since suspended the NGO CHESA, accusing it of promoting gay marriage.

Photo: Police man the entrance to the Tanzanian High Commission as people protest across the road. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee.

Outside the Tanzania High Commission police lined up in front of the main gate as protesters demonstrated across the road. A man from inside the commission could be seen taking photos of those protesting outside as they shouted slogans demanding the release of those who have been incarcerated.

The Tanzanian government is destroying the legacy of Julius Nyerere,” shouted one protester in reference to the former Tanzanian president and anti-colonial activist.

Sharon Ekambaram from Lawyers for Human Rights labelled the detention of the 13 individuals as unlawful and called for their immediate release.

She said that they haven’t as yet requested a meeting with Tanzanian officials but are in the process of doing so.

Apparently Dirco and the South African embassy in Tanzania have been very supportive so we want to work with all stakeholders to ensure that we get our comrades released immediately,” said Ekambaram.

Ekambaram said they have been in daily contact with the detainees. “Their spirits are high and based on discussions we think their conditions are fairly acceptable.”

Activist Phumi Mtetwa confirmed that the two South Africans in jail had met with officials from the South African embassy in Tanzania on Sunday. Dirco has yet to issue a communication on the matter.

Sibongile’s mother Winnie was accompanied by activist Bunie Matlanyane Sexwale into the High Commission to deliver a memorandum of demands as no one from inside the office wanted to come out to receive the document.

The ambassador refused to come down and meet us. The official refused to take the memorandum from us and made us hand it to the police who then delivered it to him. Someone just took the memorandum and came back with it signed but we don’t know who signed it because there is no stamp,” said Sexwale.

Activists say they will continue to pressurise the relevant governments to deal decisively with the matter and indicated that they will be embarking on protest action on a larger scale if those that are imprisoned are not released.

While protests continued in Pretoria, Zimbabwean journalist Sally Nyakanyanga reported that at the same time in Harare members of the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) held a press conference to lobby the Tanzanian government and the SADC over the detainments.

The Senior Project Officer for the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), representing SAHRDN, Belinda Chinowawa, said: “What we are challenging is not the Tanzanian statute in terms of homosexuality or sexual offences, but lawyers who were disturbed during consultation with their clients without any charges preferred against them, (which is) a violation of Tanzanian laws.” DM

Photo: Winnie Ndashe, the mother of Sibongile, joined the activists in their demonstrations outside the Tanzanian High Commission and held up a sign reading ‘Tanzania free my daughter’. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee.


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South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.

On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.

And on the other side are those who believe in the ethos of a country whose constitution was once declared the most progressive in the world. The hope that truth, justice and accountability in politics, business and society is not simply fairy tale dust sprinkled in great electoral speeches; but rather a cause that needs to be intentionally acted upon every day.

However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.

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