When Sibongile Ndashe, a South African feminist lawyer, got on a plane to travel to Tanzania to convene a meeting of human rights lawyers and activists, she knew she might come under the scrutiny of Tanzanian authorities. But what she did not expect was for Tanzanian police to raid the October 17 workshop at the Peacock Hotel and arrest her and 12 of her colleagues for "promoting homosexuality."
The 13 were hauled to a police station, where an officer granted them bail without laying formal charges.
A day later, Lazaro Mambosasa, Dar es Salaam head of police, confirmed the arrests to the press, claiming the "criminals" had violated Tanzanian law. While it is true that "carnal knowledge against the order of nature" is criminalized in Tanzania under a colonial-era law, by no measure of the imagination is it a crime to hold a meeting. In fact, the meeting, which had been organized by the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA), a Pan African organization whose mandate is to advance women's and sexual rights, was not even about homosexuality. Its aim was to explore the possibility of mounting legal challenges to the government's ban on drop-in centers serving key populations at risk of HIV, as well as the ban on importation of water-based lubricants, an essential HIV prevention tool.
Inexplicably, the bail was revoked on Friday, October 20. Ndashe and her colleagues are now back in custody on unknown charges but potentially facing criminal prosecution.
The arbitrary arrest of the 13 lawyers and activists is a sign of the Tanzanian government's increasing lack of tolerance for freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. The recent arrests follow a disturbing pattern, in which several dozen people have been arrested since December 2016 for "homosexuality" or "promoting homosexuality". In most of these cases police have not presented any evidence whatsoever suggesting that those detained have engaged in same-sex conduct.
The truth is that the lawyers and activists are not being held for promoting homosexuality, but for challenging absurd, reactionary policies that could cost many HIV positive people their lives. Tanzanian police should immediately release Sibongile and her colleagues and drop any politically motivated charges.