Tanzania | SA lawyers sue government over homophobic arrests


Three human rights lawyers who were detained for “promoting homosexuality” and then deported from Tanzania almost four years ago are suing the government.

The two South Africans and a Ugandan were part of a group of people detained from 17 to 27 October 2017.

Ahead of their arrest, Sibongile Ndashe, Noah Mirembe and Khanyo Mkhize travelled to Tanzania as members of the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (Isla), a pan-African, feminist organisation that works on women’s human rights and sexual rights.

They were in the country to conduct a workshop with a local organisation on a case to challenge the Ministry of Health’s decision to close HIV drop-in-centres and ban the distribution of lubricants in public health institutions.

The health minister at the time claimed that the provision of lubricants and condoms at these centres was aimed at “promoting homosexuality” among young people; part of a crackdown by state officials on LGBTQ+ people.

At lunchtime on 17 October 2017, 10 Tanzanian police officers raided the workshop at the Peacock Hotel in Dar es Salaam and arrested the twelve men and women – including Ndashe, Mirembe and Mkhize.

They were denied access to their lawyers, subjected to interrogation, had their possessions confiscated, and were threatened with anal examinations – this despite no formal charges ever being laid against them.

Ndashe, Mirembe and Mkhize were eventually deported after spending 10 days in jail, without lawful reasons given.

Prior to their deportation, the regional police commissioner held a press briefing incorrectly stating that twelve men had been arrested for “promoting homosexuality”.

Under colonial-era legislation, sex between people of the same sex is illegal in Tanzania and carries prison sentences including 30 years in jail.

“There is no basis for this ongoing persecution”

“From day one, the police knew that no law had been broken and that there was no criminal provision that prohibited our meeting. We view this incident as a harsh reminder of how states are willing to suppress attempts to hold them accountable,” says Ndashe, a public interest lawyer and one of the complainants.

In December 2020, Isla launched a lawsuit in the Dar Es Salaam High Court on behalf of the three lawyers. In March 2021, the Attorney General of Tanzania and the Minister of Home Affairs were served with a summons to appear before the court. Neither appeared, nor did they provide the court with a reason for their non-appearance.

“Detaining us without formal charges, disrupting a legal consultation between lawyers and clients was intended to send a message that the state should not be held accountable for human rights violations,” asserts Ndashe.

“We have been deported from Tanzania. It is now physically impossible to continue acts of solidarity within the country” says Noah Mirembe, a former Isla network coordinator and co-applicant in the case.

“As Isla, we respect the laws of the countries in which we operate and at no point during our meeting did we come anywhere near breaking that law. The police broke the law. The Attorney General and the Minister of Home Affairs need to make it clear that there is no penal code provision that has been violated and that there is no basis for this ongoing persecution,” adds Mirembe.

Due to the Tanzanian government’s failure to respond to the previous summons, the case was set to be heard without its presence in the High Court of Tanzania in Dar Es Salaam on Tuesday.

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