Freeman Mbowe, leader of Tanzania’s main opposition party, has appeared in court to face “terrorism” charges, in a case denounced by his supporters as a politically motivated move aimed at crushing dissent.
The 59-year-old chairman of the Chadema party has been behind bars since July 21 when he was arrested along with other senior party officials in a night-time police raid just hours before they were to hold a public forum to demand constitutional reforms.
The trial at the country’s high court in Dar-es-Salaam opened on Tuesday under tight security, with most journalists banned from the courtroom by police.
President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s government, citing COVID-19 regulations and security, had warned foreign diplomats against turning up to the court to follow the case without notifying the foreign ministry.
Representatives from the British and US embassies were present at the hearing, which was also attended by Chadema’s senior leaders.
On Monday, Mbowe had appeared in court to pursue a case against top legal officials, claiming his constitutional rights had been violated during his arrest and when he was charged.
The opposition has denounced the arrests as a throwback to the oppressive rule of Tanzania’s late leader John Magufuli who died suddenly in March.
There had been hope Hassan would bring about a new era of democracy after the increasingly heavy-handed rule of Magufuli but Chadema leaders say the arrests of Mbowe and his colleagues reflect a deepening slide into “dictatorship”.
They have accused the government of meddling in the case and want the court to dismiss the charges.
The government denies the allegations.
Earlier this month, rights group Amnesty International asked the government to “substantiate charges” against Mbowe or release him.
“His arrest & continued detention appears to be a tactic to silence critical voices as part of a growing crackdown against the political opposition,” Amnesty said in a Twitter post.
Prosecutors say the allegations against Mbowe do not relate to the constitutional reform conference Chadema had planned to hold in the port city of Mwanza in July but rather to alleged offences last year in another part of Tanzania.
Chadema has said prosecutors accuse Mbowe of conspiring to attack a public official, and giving 600,000 Tanzanian shillings ($260) towards blowing up petrol stations and public gatherings and cutting down trees to block roads.