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Tanzanian Opposition Leader, Supporters Arrested

Authorities Backsliding on Rights Reforms

Tanzania Chadema party chairman Freeman Mbowe (center) arrives at the party's headquarters after being released from Segerea prison in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on March 13, 2020. © 2020 ERICKY BONIPHACE/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday morning, police in Mwanza, in northern Tanzania, surrounded the hotel occupied by members of the country’s main opposition party, Chadema, and arrested 11 party members, including the party chairman, Freeman Mbowe. While the other party members are detained without charge in the Mwanza central police station, the police took Mbowe 1,200 kilometers away to Dar es Salaam where they conducted a search of his home, according to the party’s spokesperson.

Chadema members were due to hold a conference on Wednesday to discuss reforms to the country’s constitution, which the party said gives too much power to the president. The day before the scheduled meeting, authorities in Mwanza announced a ban on “unnecessary gatherings,” ostensibly to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

These latest arrests heighten concerns that the Tanzanian government may be backtracking on recent promises of reform.

After the election of the late President John Magufuli in 2015, human rights in Tanzania deteriorated dramatically, particularly on freedom of expression and association. Police arbitrarily arrested and detained journalists, activists, and scores of opposition party leaders and supporters. Laws like the 2015 Cybercrimes Act and the 2016 Media Services Act were used to censor opposition politicians, journalists, and activists.

In 2012, the government embarked on a review of the existing 1977 constitution, but the process stalled after Magufuli took office and made it clear the review was not a priority for his administration, saying his government would instead pursue development projects.

When President Samia Suluhu Hassan came into power in March, she took some measures to strengthen Tanzania’s rights record. She called for lifting on bans on media outlets, formed a committee of experts to evaluate the government’s Covid-19 response, and pardoned over 5,000 prisoners to reduce prison overcrowding.

But instead of arresting political opponents who are calling for constitutional reform, President Hassan’s government should continue with their reform agenda and protect everyone’s rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in line with international human rights norms.

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