The arrest in Tanzania last week of 13 people accused of the “promotion of homosexuality” has been called “a terrible human rights violation”.
Two of those arrested are from South Africa and include well-known human rights lawyer, Sibongile Ndashe, executive director of the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (Isla).
The arrests took place in Dar es Salaam last Tuesday when the Tanzanian police raided a legal consultation meeting, convened by Isla and Community Health Services and Advocacy (Chesa).
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Isla’s Faathima Mahomed raised her concerns around the long period between when they were arrested and when they will first appear in court — the date of which remains uncertain. They are yet to be charged.
“It amounts to arbitrary detention,” she said.
A day after the arrest, Lazaro Mambosasa, Dar es Salaam’s head of police, said the “criminals” had violated Tanzanian law. The 13 remain behind bars after bail was revoked on Friday, with the stated intention of “starting the investigation afresh”.
Isla and Chesa said their meeting was held “in order to get more instructions and evidence on a case that was to be before a court.”
The case concerns a challenge to government’s decision to limit the provision of certain health services, which it had previously provided.
Isla and Chesa said the “mischaracterisation of a legal consultation – where lawyers and their clients were discussing a very specific case to be referred to the court – is unfortunate.”
“The police had a copy of the concept note and the agenda of the consultation,” they said.
In a statement issued by Human Rights Watch, the organisation said: “While it is true that ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ is criminalised in Tanzania under a colonial-era law, by no measure of the imagination is it a crime to hold a meeting.
“In fact, the meeting, which had been organised by Isla, a pan-African organisation whose mandate is to advance women’s and sexual rights, was not even about homosexuality,” said Human Rights Watch.
“Its aim was to explore the possibility of mounting legal challenges to the government’s ban on drop-in centers serving key populations at risk of HIV, as well as the ban on importation of water-based lubricants, an essential HIV prevention tool.”
Berry Nibogora, a lawyer and Executive Director of African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR) and who has a longstanding working relationship with both Isla and Chesa said:
“There has never been a case like this in Tanzania, where foreigners have been arrested. This is very concerning, because one of the dominant narratives being pushed in Tanzania is that homosexuality is a foreign import. So this arrest gives credence to that argument” he said.
“If there is a line that State and non-State actors should not cross, it’s the one of interfering with lawyers consulting their clients,” Nibogora added.
He said that in his communications with Ndashe, she was not fearful of being arrested, but was “more concerned about her colleagues and the effects the extensive negative media coverage could have on everyday Tanzanians”.
Mahomed added: “In the context of the work they were doing there, as human rights lawyers, it makes this so much more difficult to accept what is happening. It really is a terrible human rights violation.”
Lawyers representing those arrested are to make another bail application tomorrow, Monday 23.