Tanzania’s High Court on Friday dismissed terrorism charges against opposition leader Freeman Mbowe and his co-accused, and ordered their immediate release, ending a case that his supporters had branded a politically-motivated bid to crush dissent.
“The court is informed by Director of Public Prosecutions on behalf of the Republic that he will not further prosecute Freeman Nbowe and three others for the offences of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, providing funds to commit terrorist acts, participating in a terrorist meeting and possession of property for commission of terrorist acts,” reads the released Nolle Prosequi sheet.
The court’s decision was declared on Friday, where the director of public prosecutions filed a motion of no intent to proceed with the case at the High Court Division of Corruption and Economic Sabotage Offences, dropping the terrorism charges against them. Mbowe alone faced a separate charge of financing acts of terrorism in the Economic Sabotage Case Number 16 of 2021.
The government of President Samia Suhulu had come under mounting pressure to drop the case, which raised concerns at home and abroad about the state of political and media freedoms in the East African country.
CHADEMA party chair Mbowe and his three co-defendants have been behind bars for more than seven months.
“Because the (prosecution) has submitted an intention to drop the case and the defence side has accepted it, the case is now removed from the court and I order the suspects to be released unconditionally,” said Judge Joachim Tiganga.
“They should be released from jail immediately.”
None of the accused were in the Dar es Salaam court for Friday’s hearing, when the defence had been due to present its case. Mbowe’s lawyer Peter Kibatala told journalists that formalities for their release were expected to be concluded Friday afternoon.
“At the moment we are savouring our huge victory, both morally and legally,” he told journalists.
The decision triggered jubilant scenes in court, according to a video posted on Twitter by CHADEMA, and was welcomed by the US ambassador to Tanzania.
“Today’s dismissal of the case against Freeman Mbowe is a welcome opportunity for Tanzania to turn the page and focus on the future,” US ambassador to Tanzania Donald Wright posted on Twitter.
“Now let’s work together to seize the immense opportunities that exist, and build a future of peace, prosperity, and freedom for all.”
The decision was also welcomed by Maria Sarungi Tsehai of activist group Change Tanzania.
“The government of #Tanzania has bowed to public pressure, after 226 days they have released Freeman Mbowe,” she posted on Twitter.
“This is how we do it! Never ever back down or agree to keep quiet in the face of injustice!”
The state prosecutor Robert Kidando told the court Friday: “We have no intention to continue with the case.”
‘Turn the page’
Recently, the government has made seemingly conciliatory overtures to the opposition. In February, Hassan met in Brussels with CHADEMA’S deputy chair Tundu Lissu, who was the party’s candidate in the 2020 presidential election but lives in exile in Belgium following an attempt on his life in 2017.
Also last month, the government lifted a Magufuli-era ban on four Swahili-language newspapers, including Daima, a daily owned by Mbowe.
Mbowe’s arrest had dimmed hopes that Suluhu would turn the page on the autocratic rule of her predecessor John Magufuli, nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for his uncompromising style and crackdown on dissent. Chadema had accused Hassan’s government of meddling in the case and said the arrests reflected a deepening slide into “dictatorship” since she became president in March last year.
The arrest of Mbowe and his co-accused
The arrest of Mbowe and several others took place last July at approximately 2:30AM in a hotel in the northwestern port city of Mwanza, the night before he and party members were set to host a public forum on constitutional reform. He was held in an undisclosed location beyond the reach of counsel for weeks and allegedly subjected to torture, before appearing in court for the first time on Friday, August 6, on terrorism related charges.
Government critics said the arrests bore the hallmarks of the oppressive rule of the country’s late leader John Magufuli. Mbowe also after his arrest, accused police of torturing him during his time in custody.
In the case, prosecutors had said the allegations against Mbowe did not relate to the planned constitutional reform conference, but to alleged offences last year in another part of Tanzania. CHADEMA has said the charges included conspiring to attack a public official, and giving 600,000 Tanzanian shillings ($260, 230 euros) towards blowing up petrol stations and public gatherings and cutting down trees to block roads.
Religious leaders in Tanzania were on Wednesday also seen to urge the government to end the case, they made the plea during a meeting with President Samia Suluhu at the State House Dar es Salaam.
“The religious leaders used the meeting with President Hassan to ask authority responsible for that matter to end the case,” reads the statement from the Director of Presidential Communications, Zuhura Yunus.
During end of the year prayers in 2021, religious leaders asked President Samia to promote reconciliation to initiate the healing of the country.
Current events around the case
CHADEMA chair Freeman Mbowe and three co-accused have been set free after the Director of Public Prosecution dropped terrorism charges against them; they were on Friday set to defend themselves against the charges that were facing them–the defendants represented by Peter Kibatala were also not in court after it was alleged that Mbowe was ill.
What remains to be seen is whether Tanzania, an East African country currently ruled by a constitution that lends considerable power to the executive, will eventually see the much-needed constitutional reforms the opposition has been pushing for, become a reality.