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Tanzanians raise £100,000 to support opposition politicians convicted for holding rally

The Independent logo The Independent 12/03/2020 Andy Gregory
Miriam Makeba et al. standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera © Provided by The Independent

Tanzanian citizens have raised more than £100,000 to pay fines handed to nine senior opposition politicians and officials convicted for holding a rally.

The East African nation’s president, John Magufuli, introduced a ban on political rallies upon taking office in 2015, one of a raft of measures seen as further restricting freedoms in a country once viewed in the region as a stronghold of democracy.

Chadema, the main opposition party to Mr Magafuli’s reigning Chama Cha Mapinduzi (“Party of the Revolution”), flouted this ban in February 2018 to demand several of their candidates be officially recognised in an upcoming by-election.

Police opened fire on the crowds marching in Dar es Salaam’s Kinondoni district, with a stray bullet taking the life of 21-year-old Akwilina Akwilini as she sat on a bus home from college.

Her killing, which remains unsolved, sparked widespread condemnation against government repression and an increase in killings and abductions across the country, according to Human Rights Watch.

Nine opposition MPs involved in the demonstration were arrested and charged with incitement to violence, holding an illegal gathering and sedition.

The charges of sedition and incitement to violence are thought to relate to comments made at the rally by the party’s national chair Freeman Mbowe, in which he suggested Mr Magufuli would not remain president for long.

Swathes of supporters gathered at the court before the ruling on Tuesday. Some prayed, while others sang songs of solidarity before police dispersed them using force, according to the BBC.

The officials were found guilty of 12 out of the 13 charges.

The judge handed down a sentence of five months in prison, or fines amounting to 350m Tanzanian shillings (£120,000), the Agence France-Presse news agency reported. All of the accused were detained in Segerea prison until they could pay.

Chadema immediately set up a fundraising campaign, and by Wednesday night, had received more than £80,000 in donations, with reports suggesting the total cost of the fines had been surpassed by Thursday evening.

Three female MPs were released from custody on Thursday morning after their fines were paid, with Mr Mbowe and four other male members remaining in detention ahead of their fines being paid.

Those already freed thanked their supporters for their donations at a press conference, and vowed not to give up on politics.

“From what I have seen in Tanzanians I promise never to back down, all this is because these Tanzanians, who are mostly low-income, have been putting their faith in us, and Chadema will use the dollar to free the poor Tanzanian,” Esther Matiko MP said in Swahili upon her release.

a man wearing glasses: Halima Mdee, speaks during a press conference with Ester Matiko and Ester Bulaya upon their release from Segerea prison (Ericky Boniphace/AFP via Getty Images) © Provided by The Independent Halima Mdee, speaks during a press conference with Ester Matiko and Ester Bulaya upon their release from Segerea prison (Ericky Boniphace/AFP via Getty Images)

In a surprise move, the country’s president donated towards the fines handed to several of the men remaining in custody on Thursday afternoon, Kisutu magistrates’ court was reported as saying in local media.

However this was disputed in reports suggesting the fines of some of the alleged recipients had already been paid using the public’s donations.

Responding to the guilty verdict on Tuesday, the US government warned “efforts to criminalise” the opposition did not bode well for the country’s looming elections.

“The conviction of Chadema members, including Freeman Mbowe, on spurious charges, is more evidence of deteriorating political space and freedoms in Tanzania,” the US senate foreign relations committee wrote on Twitter.

“The government’s efforts to criminalise the opposition further undermines the possibility of democratic polls later this year.”

On Thursday, Chadema notified the prosecutor’s office of its intent to appeal the convictions, The Citizen reported.

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