Tanzanian freelance journalist Erick Kabendera was arrested in July 2019 and charged with economic crimes in retaliation for his reporting. Kabendera, whose health has deteriorated in detention, does not qualify for bail under Tanzanian law. His case has been delayed several times.
Kabendera’s work has appeared in local and international publications including The EastAfrican newspaper, the London-based Guardian newspaper, and the website African Arguments, according to CPJ research. He has covered a range of beats including politics, business, conservation, and human rights, according to CPJ’s review of his work.
On the evening of July 29, 2019, men who claimed to be police but who refused to show identification took Kabendera from his home in the outskirts of Tanzania’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, as CPJ reported at the time. The men claimed that they were taking him to Oysterbay Police Station in Dar es Salaam, but when family and colleagues checked there and at other stations in the city later that night, they could not find him, according to a relative of the journalist who spoke to CPJ in August and a statement from the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition.
In a July 30 press conference, Dar es Salaam police commander Lazaro Mambosasa said that authorities were investigating Kabendera’s citizenship. Mambosasa claimed that the journalist was being detained at the Central Police Station in Dar es Salaam but when family and lawyers tried to visit him that evening, they were denied access, one of his lawyers, Jones Sedondo told CPJ at the time.
His family was granted access to see him on July 31, Sedondo, told CPJ. In a joint statement, four Tanzanian rights organizations said that authorities had infringed on Kabendera’s rights by failing to bring him to court within the legally stipulated 24 hours.
In the week that followed his arrest, government officials searched Kabendera’s home at least twice, questioned his mother, and confiscated passports belonging to his wife and children, according to media reports. The initial claim that authorities were investigating whether Kabendera was a Tanzanian citizen was met was skepticism from family and local media, because the journalist had been investigated in 2013 and had been “cleared,” according to a relative who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Authorities questioned Kabendera on allegations of sedition before they charged him with economic crimes on August 5, according to the charge sheet and a statement from one of his lawyers, Jebra Kambole, which CPJ reviewed.
Prosecutors claim that between January 2015 and January 2019, Kabendera laundered money, evaded taxes, and assisted an organized crime racket, according to court documents seen by CPJ. Kambole said he believes that the charges are in retaliation for Kabendera’s critical journalism. Shortly before his arrest, Kabendera published reports in The EastAfrican on divisions within Tanzania’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi.
Under Tanzanian law, tax evasion carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and/or a fine of up to one million Tanzanian shillings (US$435), money laundering of up to 10 years in prison or a fine of up to 100 million Tanzanian shillings ($43,541), and “assisting an organized crime racket” carries a prison term of up to 15 years.
Under Tanzanian law, people accused of money laundering do not qualify for bail, so Kabendera could remain in detention for the duration of his trial, Sedondo, one of the lawyers representing the journalist, told CPJ. According to media reports, other individuals facing money laundering charges have been detained for years in Tanzania pending investigation.
Kabendera’s case has been characterized by repeated delays. His case was adjourned six times between August 5, when he was charged, and early October, according to media reports, as the prosecution asked for more time to carry out investigations. On October 1, the case against Kabendera was postponed again to October 11, according to Kambole.
In a speech on September 22, President John Magufuli told Tanzania’s director of public prosecutions to negotiate with imprisoned suspects charged with offenses that are not bailable, and to release them if they were willing to confess, ask for forgiveness, and to pay back money owed to the state, according to a report by the privately-owned The Citizen newspaper and a video recording posted on YouTube by the TV station Azam. Magufuli gave a seven-day window for such negotiations, and later extended the deadline to October 6, according to The Citizen. Magufuli directed the director of public prosecution to continue pursuing cases against those who did not confess, “even if a case takes 20 years,” according to the recording.
On October 1, Kambole told reporters that Kabendera had not applied for the amnesty, because he could not afford it, according to The Citizen and Reuters. He said that Kabendera was appealing to the president for forgiveness, according to a video posted to Twitter by the news website Watetezi TV.
On October 11, Kambole notified the court that Kabendera intended to initiate a plea bargain with the director of public prosecutions, and the case was adjourned until October 24 according to a statement by the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition and a report by The Citizen newspaper.
As of December 1, 2019, the case had been delayed three additional times, with a hearing set for December 4, as prosecutors continued to say that investigations into the case were incomplete, according to news reports.
Kabendera’s health has deteriorated while in prison. On August 30, his lawyers told the court that he had trouble breathing and could not walk properly, as CPJ reported at the time. A doctor at Segerea prison, the maximum security facility where Kabendera is detained, prescribed him medication but had not provided family with a diagnosis.
Kabendera’s lawyers asked the court to order prison officials to take him to a public hospital in Dar es Salaam, but the presiding magistrate declined to rule on the request and adjourned the case until September 12, when Kabendera appeared in court visibly ill with difficulty walking, but the case was adjourned again, according to media reports.
On September 18, the journalist informed the court that he had been taken to Amana Hospital, a regional hospital in Dar es Salaam, according to Kambole. On October 1, Kabendera told the court that he was receiving treatment for his condition, according to Reuters.
CPJ’s repeated calls and text messages to Inspector General of Police Simon Sirro and government spokesperson Hasan Abbasi were not answered in late 2019.