Arrested Tanzanian journalist tells court his health is declining

Rights groups have decried Kabendera's arrest, saying it is part of the president's crackdown on press freedom.

    The journalist was arrested by plain-clothes officers at his home on July 29 [File: Emmanuel Herman/Reuters]
    The journalist was arrested by plain-clothes officers at his home on July 29 [File: Emmanuel Herman/Reuters]

    The health of a Tanzanian journalist, allegedly arrested for political reasons as part of a continued crackdown on freedom of expression in the country, has been deteriorating behind bars, he and his lawyer said during a court appearance.

    Erick Kabendera limped slowly into Kisutu Resident Magistrate's Court in Tanzania's commercial capital Dar-es-Salaam on Thursday morning. 

    The investigative journalist was arrested by plain-clothes officers at his home on July 29. Although initially detained for questioning over his citizenship, he faced allegations of sedition, before being formally charged with tax evasion, money laundering and organised crime.

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    His case is the most recent in Tanzania to face scrutiny from the international community and rights groups, who have accused President John Magufuli of systematically cracking down on critics and the press since coming to power in 2015.

    "My leg is numb, I have been experiencing severe pain in the leg, and chest pains," Kabendera told the court, according to Reuters news agency. 

    Prosecutor Simon Wankyo countered that Kabendera was receiving medical care at Segerea prison, a maximum security facility on the outskirts of Dar-es-Salaam where the journalist is being held. 

    While Kabendera told the court he had seen a prison doctor, his lawyers requested that he be examined in a public hospital to determine the cause of his ailment.

    "Our client is sick, has difficulty walking due to paralysis of his right foot, and has difficulty breathing at night," his lawyer Jebra Kambole told the court.

    Magistrate Augustine Rwizile adjourned the case for the fourth time since the journalist's arrest and set a new court date for September 18.

    Crackdown on freedom of expression

    Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has joined Amnesty International in calling for the release of Kabendera, who has written for both local and international publications and is known for covering the Magufuli administration. 

    One of his last stories, published in The East African, detailed purported internal divisions within the ruling party before the upcoming presidential election in 2020.

    Kabendera had also documented being stalked and harassed before his arrest. 

    On Wednesday, RSF said in a statement that Kabendera's case indicates the government wanted to silence him. 

    "Arrest by plainclothesmen, three changes to the charges and several trial postponements due to a lack of prosecution evidence - everything suggests that the purpose of these proceedings is to intimidate and silence an investigative reporter critical of Tanzania’s government," said Arnaud Froger, head of RSF's Africa office.

    The organisation has ranked Tanzania 118th in the world in press freedom, plummeting 43 places since 2015, when Magufuli was elected. 

    The group has also labelled the president a "press freedom predator".

    Since being elected, Magufuli, nicknamed "The Bulldozer", has shut down newspapers, banned opposition rallies, switched off live broadcasts of parliamentary sessions and used the cybercrimes law to jail critics. 

    Kabendera's case is playing out as press freedom groups continue to demand answers from Tanzanian officials on the fate of journalist Azory Gwanda, who disappeared in November 2017. 

    Gwanda, a reporter for the Mwananchi and The Citizen newspapers, vanished while reportedly investigating a series of murders of police and local officials in Kibiti, in the Rufiji district of the Pwani region.

    In July, Foreign Minister Palamagamba Kabudi told the BBC that Gwanda had "disappeared and died" somewhere in Rufiji district. Kabudi later backtracked on the comment, saying "to date, the government of Tanzania has no confirmation on whether Azory is dead or alive".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies