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Tanzania frees opposition leader Mbowe after dropping charges

Tanzanian opposition leader Freeman Mbowe was a free man on Friday after prosecutors dropped terrorism charges against him, ending a case that his supporters had branded a government bid to crush dissent.

President Samia Suhulu Hassan had come under mounting pressure to dismiss the case against the Chadema party chairman, which raised concerns at home and abroad about the state of political and media freedoms in the East African country.

“Justice won today,” Chadema’s deputy secretary general Benson Kigaila told a crowd of jubilant supporters gathered at party headquarters hoping to see Mbowe.

“We told them in vain from the very beginning that there is no case and today they confirmed that.”

The party posted a picture of Mbowe and his three co-defendants on Twitter after their release.

They had been behind bars for more than seven months, charged with conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and funding terrorism.

“Because the (prosecution) has submitted an intention to drop the case and the defence side has accepted it, the case is now removed from the court and I order the suspects to be released unconditionally,” said Judge Joachim Tiganga.

‘Huge victory’ 

None of the accused were in the Dar es Salaam court for Friday’s hearing — when the defence had been due to present its case.

But the decision triggered scenes of celebration in court, according to a video posted on Twitter by Chadema and was also welcomed by the US ambassador to Tanzania.

“At the moment we are savouring our huge victory, both morally and legally,” Mbowe’s lawyer Peter Kibatala told AFP.

Mbowe was arrested in July along with a number of other senior party officials in a night time police raid in the lakeside city of Mwanza just hours before they were to hold a public forum to demand constitutional reforms.

The 60-year-old veteran opposition leader accused police of torturing him during his time in custody.

His arrest had dimmed hopes Hassan would turn the page on the autocratic rule of her predecessor John Magufuli, nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for his uncompromising style and crackdown on dissent.

Chadema had accused Hassan’s government of meddling in the case and said the arrests reflected a deepening slide into “dictatorship” since she became president in March last year.

‘Turn the page’ 

Recently however, the government has made seemingly conciliatory overtures to the opposition. “Today’s dismissal of the case against Freeman Mbowe is a welcome opportunity for Tanzania to turn the page and focus on the future,” US ambassador to Tanzania Donald Wright posted on Twitter.

“Now let’s work together to seize the immense opportunities that exist, and build a future of peace, prosperity, and freedom for all.”

In February, Hassan met in Brussels with Chadema’s deputy chairman Tundu Lissu, who was the party’s candidate in the 2020 presidential election but lives in exile in Belgium following an attempt on his life in 2017.

Also last month, the government lifted a Magufuli-era ban on four Swahili-language newspapers, including Daima — a daily owned by Mbowe.

Prosecutors had said the allegations against Mbowe did not relate to the planned constitutional reform conference, but to alleged offences last year in another part of Tanzania.

Chadema has said the charges included conspiring to attack a public official, and giving 600,000 Tanzanian shillings ($260, 230 euros) towards blowing up petrol stations and public gatherings and cutting down trees to block roads.

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