A Tanzanian court on Friday dismissed terrorism charges against opposition leader Freeman Mbowe and ordered his immediate release, ending a case that his supporters had branded a politically motivated bid to crush dissent.
The government of President Samia Suhulu Hassan had come under mounting pressure to drop the case, which raised concerns at home and abroad about the state of political and media freedoms in the East African country.
Chadema party chairman Mbowe and his three co-defendants, who were charged with conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and funding terrorism, have been behind bars for more than seven months.
“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.
“They should be released from jail immediately.”
The decision triggered jubilant scenes in court, according to a video posted on Twitter by Chadema, and was welcomed by the US ambassador to Tanzania.
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.
Mbowe’s lawyer Peter Kibatala told AFP that said the formalities for their release were expected to be concluded Friday afternoon.
“At the moment we are savouring our huge victory, both morally and legally,” he told AFP.
Mbowe was arrested in July along with a number of other senior party officials in a nighttime police raid in the northwestern port city of Mwanza just hours before they were to hold a public forum to demand constitutional reforms.
But state prosecutor Robert Kidando told the court Friday: “We have no intention to continue with the case.”
The 60-year-old Mbowe has accused police of torturing him during his time in custody.
The veteran opposition leader’s 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.
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.
“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.”
The decision was also welcomed by Maria Sarungi Tsehai of activist group Change Tanzania.
“The government of #Tanzania has bowed to public pressure – after 226 days they have released Freeman Mbowe,” she posted on Twitter.
“This is how we do it! Never ever back down or agree to keep quiet in the face of injustice!”
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.