Tanzania illegally detains human rights lawyers for ‘promoting homosexuality’


A group of human rights lawyers and activists who were researching a case against the Tanzanian government has been illegally detained after police accused them of “promoting homosexuality”.

Among those arrested were three lawyers from the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (Isla), a human rights legal organisation, and nine members of Community Health and Education Services and Advocacy (Chesa), a Tanzanian sex workers’ rights organisation. The manager of the hotel where the arrest took place has also been detained.

Matilda Lasseko, an Isla lawyer, said members of the organisation were in Tanzania to discuss a possible case against the government, which over the past year has been shutting down private HIV centres around the country as part of a crackdown on homosexuality.

“The Chesa team approached us about the situation, and my colleagues, including our executive director Sibongile Ndashe, went to Tanzania to meet them and establish factual information to see if there were grounds for bringing a case,” said Lasseko.

The meeting was due to take place on 16-17 October at the Peacock hotel in Dar es Salaam. “The police came and the group showed them the agenda and the notes and they left again. But on Tuesday they returned, and took everyone to the police station.”

The Isla lawyers – two from South Africa, one from Uganda – were initially given bail after surrendering their passports, which they were asked to come in and retrieve the following day. The Chesa representatives, who are all Tanzanians, were detained without charge.

The following day, police issued a press statement saying 13 people had been arrested for committing the offence of promoting homosexuality.

The lawyers were detained again on Friday, and all 13 people have since been held without charge. Under Tanzanian, law the maximum permitted period of detention without charge is 24 hours.

There has been a crackdown on homosexuality in Tanzania over the past 18 months, although the country has no law against homosexuality or its promotion.

“People are being arrested almost every day,” said LGBT campaigner James Wandera Ouma. “I’ve been arrested 17 times. It’s straightforward harassment and intimidation.”

In October 2016, the Tanzanian government announced a on ban HIV/Aids outreach projects aimed at gay men, and closed US-funded programmes that provide testing, condoms and medical care to the gay community. The countrywide closure of private HIV clinics began soon afterwards.

State repression of homosexuality has been accompanied by a wider crackdown on the Tanzanian media. Two years ago, a radio station was fined $3,000 (£2,270) for airing “support for same-sex marriage”. A number of media outlets have since been shut down for reasons including coverage of HIV issues, linking ministers to political scandals, and insulting the president.

Ouma said it is now difficult to find lawyers in Tanzania who will defend members of the LGBT community: “There is a big legal gap. They are afraid they will be associated with homosexuality.”

Isla said in a statement that the detentions were “symptomatic of the current risks faced by human rights defenders in the region”.

“We are confronted with increasing danger in the form of state intimidation and persecution for challenging decisions which are contrary to human rights obligations,” said the group. “A failure to hold the Tanzanian state to account for its actions in this incident will create a sense of impunity that will leave human rights defenders in the region open to similar attacks.”