Tanzania charges journalist, rights groups say case politically motivated

DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - An investigative journalist in Tanzania has been charged with money laundering, tax evasion and assisting a criminal racket, according to a court document seen by Reuters, charges his lawyer and rights groups said were politically motivated.

Rights groups say press freedom in Tanzania has drastically deteriorated since the election in 2015 of President John Magufuli, whose administration has shut down newspapers, arrested opposition leaders and activists and restricted political rallies. The government has rejected the criticism.

Erick Kabendera, who has written for national and international publications, including The Guardian and The Times of London, was arrested at his home in Dar es Salaam last week, over what police said at the time were issues concerning his citizenship.

On Monday afternoon, a court charged Kabendera with three counts of leading organized crime, failure to pay taxes and money laundering, according to a charge sheet seen by Reuters.

In the charge sheet, the State Prosecutor alleged that between January 2015 and July 2019 Kabendera “knowingly furnished assistance in the conduct of affairs of a criminal racket, with intent either to reap profit or other benefit.”

During a similar period, he failed to pay taxes to an income of 173 million shillings ($75,000), the charge sheet said.

The case has been adjourned until August 19 when it will come up for mention.

“Based on the nature of questions he has been asked since being put under police custody, we believe that his arrest and subsequent prosecution are linked to his work as a journalist,” Kabendera’s lawyer, Jebra Kambole, told Reuters.

Government spokesman Hassan Abbasi declined to respond directly to the lawyer’s accusations, saying: “If he is charged in court then let’s leave the matter before the court of law.”

Last month Kabendera published a story in the regional publication The East African about purported internal divisions within the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party ahead of presidential polls in 2020.

Muthoki Mumo, the Sub-Saharan Africa representative for

New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said the charges were retaliation for Kabendera’s work as a journalist.

“The continued detention of this freelance journalist is an attempt to muzzle a critical voice and his case also has the potential to intimidate others in Tanzania’s media community into silence,” she said.

Kabendera’s lawyer said that money laundering was not a bailable offence, meaning the journalist would have to remain in remand prison until his case was concluded, warning this could be for up to three years.

Murithi Mutiga at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group also said the government was “abusing the charges of economic crimes to target critics, secure in the knowledge that the offence is not bailable.”

“The fact the authorities have offered wildly contrasting justifications for holding Erick leaves no room for doubt that this is a politically motivated attempt to silence one of Tanzania’s most courageous and talented journalists.”

Reporting by Fumbuka Ng’wanakilala; writing by Omar Mohammed; editing by Hereward Holland and Raissa Kasolowsky