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A woman inks her finger after voting in Zanzibar, Tanzania, October 28, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo

(Nairobi) – Authorities in Tanzania killed at least four people and carried out other serious abuses that marred the national elections in late October and early November 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. They should investigate these abuses, end the harassment of journalists and opposition politicians, and cancel the media restrictions that began before election day.

After election campaigns started in August, the police arbitrarily arrested and detained scores of opposition party leaders and supporters. In the weeks ahead of the elections, the authorities suspended television and radio stations, censored mobile phone communication, and blocked social media. On the eve of elections, police fired live ammunition into crowds on the semi-autonomous island archipelago of Zanzibar, killing at least three people.

“The Tanzanian government crackdown on the opposition and the press during the electoral campaign undermined the credibility of the elections,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to credibly investigate election-related abuses and end continuing repressive practices now.”

Elections on mainland Tanzania took place on October 28, and in Zanzibar on October 27 and 28. On October 30, the National Electoral Commission announced that President John Magufuli of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party had won with 84 percent of the vote ahead of his closest challenger, Tundu Lissu of the opposition, Chadema party.

Human Rights Watch conducted phone interviews with 16 people between October 15 and November 9, including journalists, party officials, and family members of people allegedly killed by police.

Human Rights Watch documented the arrests of at least 18 opposition party officials, leaders, and supporters, including Lissu and another presidential candidate, Seif Sharif Hamad of the ACT Wazalendo party, ahead of, and after the elections. The Chadema party reported that up to 300 of its members were arrested across the country during this period.

Human Rights Watch found that police killed at least three people and injured scores of others on the night before the elections in Zanzibar. In a November 10 statement, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights called for investigations into allegations that at least 10 people were killed in Zanzibar in the two days leading up to the elections. On November 11, the inspector general of police, Simon Sirro, told the media that only two people died as a result of “sporadic violence” on October 26, and that a third, a soldier, was killed by opposition supporters on October 28, but did not address allegations of police involvement.

Catherine Ruge, a Chadema parliamentary candidate, told Human Rights Watch that police arrested and beat her and several of her colleagues at an election campaigns coordination office in the northern Serengeti district on October 12. A policeman later sexually assaulted her, touching her inappropriately at a police station, she said. She said that one of the officers, whom she recognized, threatened to kill her, telling her, “This election will not end before I kill you.” Two days later, Sirro, the police inspector general, told the media that police would investigate Ruge’s allegations.

In Zanzibar, government security forces and a government-aligned militia group known as the “Mazombi,” or “Zombies,” harassed and beat people prior to and since the elections. Three people on Pemba island said that during this time security forces regularly harassed residents, brandishing guns and chasing them away from public spaces.

In the lead-up to the elections, the media regulator, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), suspended media outlets for election-related coverage and placed restrictions on online content critical of the government. A journalist in Unguja, Zanzibar, told Human Rights Watch that on October 29, police briefly detained her and two colleagues at a police station as they sought to cover a street demonstration against the local election results organized by ACT Wazalendo.

Since President Magufuli took office in 2015, the authorities have increasingly cracked down on the media and civil society groups by passing and enforcing restrictive laws and threatening to withdraw the registration of organizations critical of the government. The government also placed restrictions on the political opposition and gave the registrar of political parties’ wide discretionary powers, including to withdraw registration from parties.

The Tanzanian authorities should take prompt, credible, and impartial steps to investigate the allegations of election-related killings, beatings and assaults by security forces, and hold those responsible accountable, Human Rights Watch said. The government should urgently review repressive legislation and policies and ensure protection for the rights of all as guaranteed under international and regional human rights law including the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

“The Tanzanian government’s dramatic decline in respect for free expression, association and peaceful assembly was worryingly obvious during the elections,” Nyeko said. “The Magufuli government should take concrete steps to improve respect for human rights for all.”

For details of elections-related abuses, please see below.

Elections in Tanzania

Tanzania’s system of government is divided into a union government, which is responsible for matters that concern the entire country including the island archipelago of Zanzibar, and the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar.

The Tanzania Police Force operates in both mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar and is administered by the union government. Zanzibar operates its own security forces known as the SMZ “special departments” or “vikosi,” alongside the Tanzania police. A shadowy paramilitary group, locally known as the Mazombi or Zombies, has harassed civilians and critics of the government during past elections.

Between 1977 and 1992, after the formation of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, Tanzania functioned as one-party state. In 1992 the constitution was amended to allow a multi-party system. Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo, or Chadema, is the second largest political party and the main opposition to CCM on the mainland, while ACT-Wazalendo is the biggest opposition party in Zanzibar. Voters in Zanzibar vote for a president and parliamentary representatives for the archipelago as well as for Tanzania’s president and national assembly. Voters on the mainland elect representatives at the national assembly and the president of Tanzania. The National Electoral Commission coordinates union elections while the Zanzibar Electoral Commission manages Zanzibar’s electoral matters.

The 2020 national elections were marred across the country by government repression of opposition politicians and the media. Zanzibar appears to have been worse affected as the police carried out spates of arbitrary arrests, harassment, and shootings before, during, and after the election.

Police Shootings and Killings

Two witnesses and a victim’s relative told Human Rights Watch that on the eve of the elections in Zanzibar, police fired live ammunition into crowds, killing at least three people.

The father of 25-year-old Yussuf Shaahame Muhidini said that police fatally shot his son in the chest on the evening of October 26 at the Kangagani village square on Pemba island, Zanzibar. He said that he reported the shooting to the “Sheha,” a community leader, and the police, who did nothing. He buried his son the next day, alongside two others who were allegedly killed by police.

On the morning of October 27, police allegedly shot and killed Salum Ali Abdallah, 28, in Wete town on Pemba island, at a shop near his home. A witness said that two policemen stormed the shop. When Abdallah realized that they were police, he shouted, “They will come and kill us!” and tried to flee. As he ran, one of the policemen shot him in the back. The witness said that the police then attempted to conceal the evidence by rubbing dirt over the bloodstains on the floor, then drove off with his body. The witness said he later learned that Abdallah’s body had been taken to Wete hospital.

Zanzibar police later told the media that they detained 42 people for allegedly throwing stones at police who were distributing ballot boxes. The opposition party ACT Wazalendo reported that up to 10 people were killed in Zanzibar.

Arbitrary Arrests and Harassment

During and after the elections, Tanzania police clamped down on opposition members and arbitrarily arrested at least 18 opposition leaders and supporters.

Ruge, the parliamentary candidate, said that on October 12, two policemen attempted to remove her and her colleagues from the office of the official responsible for coordinating elections in Serengeti district. The policemen were joined by several others, including a senior police officer in the district, whom she alleged beat them and tore her clothes, then took her and the others in a police truck to the local police station.

Ruge said that at the station in the presence of her lawyer, a male officer sexually assaulted her by inappropriately touching her waist and buttocks. She said that after her release later that day, eight officers followed her to a nearby restaurant, where they kicked and beat her with a bat. The authorities have charged Ruge along with five others with several offenses, including unlawful assembly and malicious damage to property.

The media reported that on October 14, police in Tarime, in the northern Mara Region, raided the home of a Chadema parliamentary candidate, Esther Matiko, arresting one person. On October 23 and again on October 28, police arrested and soon released a Chadema opposition member, Halima Mdee. Edward Bukombe, the Kinondoni regional police commander, said that the police arrested Mdee after an “altercation.”

On October 26, police arrested an ACT Wazalendo party official, Hamad Masoud Hamad, shortly after he landed at Pemba Airport in Zanzibar. He was released on November 2 without charge.

The police arrested and later released a presidential candidate for Zanzibar, Seif Sharif Hamad, at a polling place on Unguja island on October 27, after he objected to voters being given two to three ballot papers to vote on. On October 29, Hamad called on his party supporters to protest the election results, which he said had been rigged. The police arrested him and 40 others before the protests began, but later released Hamad on bail, while the others remained in detention at Madema Police Station.

On November 1, the police arrested the Chadema chairperson, Freeman Mbowe, and party members Godbless Lema and Boniface Jacob, the day before demonstrations called by Chadema and ACT Wazalendo to protest the alleged rigging of early election results. On November 2, the police arrested and later released Lissu, the opposition presidential candidate, at the European Union offices in Dar es Salaam in connection with the protests. Lissu later told the media that due to threats to his life, at the time of his arrest he was seeking asylum at the residence of the German ambassador. The following week, Lissu and Lema left Tanzania, citing continuing threats to their lives.

Lissu, a prominent opposition leader and former parliament member, had previously been the target of attacks. He left the country in September 2017 after unknown assailants shot him, leaving him badly wounded outside his home in the Tanzanian capital, Dodoma. Although the government said at the time it was investigating the attack, no one has been arrested over the shooting three years on. Lissu only returned to Tanzania in July 2020.

On November 17, the authorities released ACT Wazalendo’s deputy secretary general, Nassor Mazrui, after he spent 23 days in detention. In an October 28 statement, the party reported that Mazrui had been abducted from his home at night and beaten. Police later claimed that Mazrui and 32 others were arrested for possessing devices that could interfere with the electoral system. ACT Wazalendo officials said that they were denied access to all their party members who had been detained for several days. Days before his arrest, Mazrui told Human Rights Watch that he had earlier been abducted and held for five hours by about six unidentified men on October 25 as he made his way to his office on Zanzibar’s Unguja island.

People in Zanzibar said that in the period leading up to the elections and days after, security forces repeatedly harassed people. A Kangagani resident said police broke their neighbors’ doors at night, beat people, and looted items from their homes. Another said that they saw masked armed men in black t-shirts belonging to the government-aligned Mazombi militia group randomly grab several people on the streets of Unguja, beat, and arrest them.

Violations of Free Speech; Media Restrictions

On August 27, the media regulator Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority, ordered Clouds TV and Clouds FM to suspend programming for seven days and to apologize for allegedly airing candidate nomination results unconfirmed by the National Electoral Commission. On October 21, media authorities in Zanzibar suspended RVS Online TV, an online television station, for two months for allegedly failing to broadcast elections fairly.

The authorities appear to have blocked foreign journalists from covering the elections by failing in some instances to respond to accreditation applications. Four foreign journalists said that they wrote to officials at the Ministry of Information, Youth, Culture and Sports several weeks ahead of the elections to seek accreditation but did not receive responses. This follows the government’s June regulations banning Tanzanian broadcasters from working with their foreign counterparts without staff from the regulatory authority or another other government agency present. Foreign journalists accredited to cover the elections in Zanzibar said security officials blocked them from entering polling places.

On September 18, the authorities charged Dominic Mgaya, a Chadema official, with providing content to the party’s YouTube channel, Chadema TV, without a license granted by the Communications authority. The regulatory authority has wide discretionary powers to license blogs, websites, and online content. Mgaya was released on bail and his trial is ongoing.

The authorities also restricted mobile phone and online communications ahead of the elections. On October 21, TCRA ordered telecom companies to suspend bulk text messaging until after the elections, blocking candidates from reaching large audiences. The day before the vote on mainland, Twitter reported “some blocking and throttling” of the social media site in Tanzania.

Internet freedom organizations Open Observatory of Network Interference and the NetBlocks Internet Observatory indicated a likelihood of network disruption in the country targeting Twitter and messaging applications including WhatsApp. To access the internet and social media networks, Tanzanians began using virtual private networks (VPNs). However, on October 28, VPN service provider Proton VPN tweeted that VPNs were being blocked in the country.

On September 25, police arrested an ACT Wazalendo party official, Dotto Rangimoto, and his colleagues Arodia Peter and Dahlia Majid, at his office and detained them at the Oyster Bay police station in Dar es Salaam. Majid and Peter were later released, while Rangimoto was detained for 10 days without charge, in violation of Tanzanian law that requires suspects to be charged within 48 hours.

Rangimoto told Human Rights Watch that at the station, the police beat him and demanded passwords to his email and social media accounts. The police told him he was being detained for insulting President Magufuli on Twitter. Rangimoto was later charged with violating the Cybercrime Act for allegedly distributing pornography online.

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