Tanzanian human rights activist Tito Magoti speaks during an event in Dodoma, Tanzania on November 6, 2019 © 2019 Sipa Michael Mallya
 

The United Nations and the African Union have been urged to intervene on behalf of Tito Magoti, a Tanzanian human rights activist, who was arrested on December 20, 2019 in Dar es Salaam. 28 civil society groups have written a letter to voice their concerns that Magoti’s detention is in retaliation for his legitimate human rights work.

Magoti, 26, works for the nongovernmental Tanzanian organization Legal and Human Rights Center (LHRC). The organization said he was arrested after being lured to a meeting by text messages from a friend, Theodory Giyan, who had himself been arrested the day before. As he arrived at the meeting place, four unidentified men handcuffed and blindfolded Magoti, drove him away, and held him at several different police stations. LHRC says the police questioned Magoti about his online activism and his involvement with other rights activists and opposition members.

Currently, both Magoti and Giyan are being held on remand in Segerea Prison in Dar es Salaam pending trial. They face charges of “economic crimes,” which under Tanzanian law are non-bailable, meaning there is no possibility of release before he is tried. International human rights law requires that detention before trial is an exception, not the rule. They are accused of leading an organized criminal racket, possessing a computer program designed to commit an offence, and money laundering.

These arrests come as Tanzania’s human rights record continues to deteriorate under President John Magufuli. Since 2015, the government has cracked down on civil society by passing repressive laws, censoring media, and arresting government critics, including journalists and several opposition politicians. Last year, police arrested Erick Kabendera, who had written for several international outlets critiquing Tanzanian politics. Like Magoti, he was also charged with non-bailable offenses of economic crimes, and has been in detention since last July awaiting trial. If Kabendera’s case is any indication, Magoti could also face several months awaiting trial.

These arrests are especially troubling as Tanzania gears up for general elections later this year. Rather than stifling dissent, the government should be allowing healthy debate and upholding the freedom of expression, which is guaranteed in its own constitution.