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Three Tanzanian activists arrested after criticising UAE port deal

Critics detained for opposition to agreement allowing Emirati company to manage Tanzania's ports and trade corridors
Former Tanzanian parliamentarian Willibrod Slaa addresses a campaign rally at Mbagala Zakhem on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on 28 October 2010 (Reuters)
Former Tanzanian parliamentarian Willibrod Slaa addresses a campaign rally at Mbagala Zakhem on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on 28 October 2010 (Reuters)

Three Tanzanian activists have been arrested for criticising a port deal between Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to a report published by Amnesty on Monday.

Former parliamentarian and Tanzanian ambassador to Sweden Willibrod Slaa, lawyer and activist Boniface Mwabukusi and political activist Mdude Nyagali, have been arrested since Saturday for publicly opposing an agreement which grants an Emirati logistics company control over major Tanzanian ports.

The accord was signed in October last year by Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan and Emirati ports and customs chief Ahmed Mahboob Musabih, and endorsed by Tanzania’s parliament on 10 June.

It will allow the UAE to aid in developing, managing and operating Tanzania’s ports, logistics parks, special economic zones, and trade corridors, among other infrastructure. 

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"The Tanzanian authorities’ crackdown on critics of the UAE port deal reveals their growing intolerance for dissent," said Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty's regional director for East and Southern Africa.

"The authorities must stop arbitrarily detaining activists simply for peacefully expressing their views, and immediately and unconditionally release these activists to ensure the respect of the right to freedom of expression."

'Snuffing out dissent'

Prior to his arrest, Mwabukusi launched a court petition which argued that the port agreement endangered national sovereignty and security and violated the country's constitution.

Formal charges against Slaa, Mwabukusi and Nygali have yet to be presented but all three of the detained critics have been denied bail, lawyers told Amnesty. 

The lawyer added that police chiefs in the capital Dar es Salaam and southwestern city Mbeya said the three activists would be charged with treason.

Treason carries a mandatory death penalty under Tanzania’s penal code, and is an unbailable offence.

"By criminalising public criticism of the port deal, the Tanzanian authorities are clearly trying to snuff out dissent," said Chagutah. 

"The government should instead enable the public to engage in discussions of all matters of public interest, including the UAE port agreement, and ensure all aspects of the agreement are transparent to ensure the public’s meaningful engagement."

The Tanzanian agreement is not the first Emirati port agreement to cause a stir in an African country. 

In December, Sudan and the UAE struck a $6bn preliminary agreement to develop and operate Abu Amama port on the Red Sea.

The deal includes the construction of an airport, a big agricultural scheme, and dozens of railways and roads to link the Nile to the Red Sea.

Local residents and Sudanese port employees told Middle East Eye it would result in a loss of land with no clear benefit to the community.

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