A prominent Tanzanian journalist arrested in July 2019 has been released after pleading guilty of tax evasion and money laundering in a case seen by critics as politically motivated.
“Finally, I’ve got my freedom. It’s quite unexpected that I would be out this soon. I’m really grateful to everybody who played their role,” the 39-year-old investigative reporter, Erick Kabendera, said outside the court on Monday.
In the charge sheet, prosecutors said Kabendera had registered two companies with his wife who was not arrested or charged. The companies were used as “vehicles of money laundering” without proper returns being filed.
Although his lawyers originally rejected the charges, they said in October he was pursuing a plea bargain.
After plea bargaining, the count of organised crime was dropped and Kabendera pleaded guilty to money laundering and agreed to pay 100 million shillings ($43,309) in fines for it. He also pleaded guilty for failing to pay 173 million shillings ($74,924) in taxes and agreed to pay a fine of 250,000 shillings ($108) for the crime in addition to the actual taxes.
A third charge, of assisting a criminal racket, was dropped.
The reporter has written for international publications, including Britain’s The Guardian and The Times, and was known for pursuing politically sensitive investigations.
An article last year, published by the East African newspaper, reported a rift in President John Magufuli’s government with the headline “No end in sight as Tanzania’s ruling party CCM goes for ‘dissenters'”.
After his arrest, the United States and the United Kingdom called the affair “irregular” and in violation of Tanzania’s criminal procedures law.
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.
Rights groups saw Kabendera’s case as part of a pattern of tighter control on the media since the 2015 election of Magufuli.
The UK-based rights group, Amnesty International, said Kabendera’s plea came from “desperation”, possibly linked to poor health.
“While it is welcome news that Kabendera is out of prison … it is outrageous that he had to pay such a hefty fine to gain his freedom after having been unjustly jailed for exercising his right to freedom of expression.”
Jehanne Henry, Human Rights Watch‘s East Africa director, told Al Jazeera last year: “With elections around the corner, people don’t feel that they can comment honestly.”
“Human rights activists are restrained from pushing for accountability for disappearances and other human rights abuses,” she added, referring to Tanzania’s polls scheduled for later in 2020.
Held at the Segerea maximum security prison on the outskirts of the capital Dar es Salaam, the journalist had appeared in court more than 10 times, sometimes appearing frail.
In September, Magufuli said people held on charges of tax evasion, money laundering and other financial crimes should be freed if they confess and return the cash.