ERICK Kabendera’s case has become an enigma in Tanzania’s journalism fraternity.
Can one understand or explain how this investigative journalist survived a vicious abduction by security forces in late July 2019 and a subsequently spurious immigration issue that was meant to render him stateless?
With all those attempts mysteriously foiled, the state finally arrested him and fixed him with criminal charges – money laundering, organised crime, and tax evasion. The intent was to never let him free, but keep him in remand prison indefinitely because, in Tanzania, all of these charges are unbailable. Suspects can remain in remand prison indefinitely as long as the investigation is not over and the case is not decided.
And this explains why Kabendera had to spend about seven months in Segerea prison before he was released by the Kisutu Resident Magistrate’s Court on February 23, 2020, on the ground of a plea-bargain.
From the outset, it was clear that the state had no case whatsoever against him. Since July 2019, the prosecution has failed to get the hearing of his case done, claiming they were still investigating the matter.
Fearing it would take years to have his case decided – and because the matter is politically motivated, after all – Kabendera’s comrades convinced him on the benefits of taking advantage of the plea bargain, and they assisted him in the process of securing the funds towards that cause.
As a fine for his immediate release, Kabendera paid $108. He also agreed with the court to pay $75,000 within six months for charges on the tax evasion charge. Prior to his release, he had paid a fine of $43,000 on the money laundering charge.
So, it is publicly known that even though Kabendera pleaded guilty in court, the essence was not to repent for his “sins” but to avoid rotting in prison on trumped-up charges. He literally bought his freedom to make one of the recent precedents on this matter.
Kabendera has been writing for some international publications including UK’s The Independent, The Guardian and The Times. He also made some editorial contribution to the Economist Intelligence Unit and some newspapers in Tanzania.
It is understood, however, that there is a growing sense of selective justice in Tanzania with regard to charges of money laundering and similar economic crimes. Most of the victims are linked with either criticising the government in any way or being on the wrong side of President John Magufuli’s impulses.
Some of them have spent over four years in prison for the failure of the prosecution to do sufficient investigation into their cases, At the same time, Magufuli’s cronies and buddies with similar implications have been enjoying the regime’s soft spot, walking freely.
When the former Home Affairs Minister, Kangi Lugola, was fired for mismanaging funds amounting to $408, it was everyone’s expectation that he would end up remanded in remand prison, like Kabendera. But the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Bureau (PCCB) simply interrogated him and two of his former subordinates and implicated them with similar charges to Kabendera’s, then let them loose. This privileged treatment of these suspects has left the public discontented and critical of the Magufuli regime.
Kabendera has been part of an expanding list of citizens facing similar charges since 2016. They include James Rugemalira, Harbinder Seth, Mwesigwa Rweyemamu, Peter Madekela, Jamila Ilomo and Abdullah Lyana – remanded in Segerea Prison.
Beatrice Bwire is in Karanga Prison, while Stella Nyaki is incarcerated in Tabora Prison. Others in various prisons include Justine Kaleb, Joseph Makandege, Luca Mallya, Emmanuel Peter, Happy Mwamugunda, Proches Shayo, Prokolini Shayo, Geoffrey Urio, Nyasulu Nkyapi, Tunsubilege Mateni, Nelson Kahangwa, Titto Magoti,Theodory Giyani, Emmanuel Gang’ai and Adam Kawambwa.
Most of them have not been able to take advantage of the plea bargain due to financial constraints. Rugemalira happens to be the only person on record insisting that he would rather die in prison than plead guilty of a crime he never committed.
Obviously, the government is using money laundering charges as a means to silence and punish critics while collecting huge amounts of money from rich suspects – another form of institutionalised corruption.
Upon his release, Kabendera spoke to the media and expressed his appreciation to the people of Tanzania for standing by him during his seven-month tribulations, particularly when he lost his mother as the authorities denied him a chance to pay his last respects.
Kabendera’s case and the way it was handled from the beginning to the end, serves as a new chapter in the struggle against neo-authoritarianism in Tanzania that is working hard to muzzle the media and to silence critics, civil society organisations, political parties, the parliament, and the judiciary.