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Trial of opposition activists will test President Hassan's reform credentials

Opposition leader Mbowe and allies are due in court in mid-August to answer charges of 'terrorist activity'

The trial of Freeman Mbowe, the chairman of opposition party Chadema, will be a key test of whether President Samia Suluhu Hassan's regime is dropping the authoritarianism of her late predecessor John Magufuli, and showing more respect for human rights.

Mbowe, along with several party officials, was arrested last month before a planned meeting to demand constitutional reform. He is facing terrorism-related charges which state prosecutors say are unrelated to his organisation's demands for constitutional change (AC Vol 62 No 15, Clearing up after the bulldozer).

The precise nature of the terror charges, however, has not been detailed. The hearing, now set for 13 August, has been delayed several times, while Mbowe remains in custody.

After a telephone call with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month, a joint statement issued with President Hassan spoke of improving the business environment, political freedoms, and Covid-19.

Blinken's Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, told reporters last week that the US had 'expressed our concern about the treatment and imprisonment of the opposition leader Mbowe.' Nuland met opposition leaders during a visit to several east African countries last week. British and Canadian diplomats have signalled that they are monitoring the case. They issued near identical statements to the US demanding transparency and the respect of due process in Mbowe's case.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, has called on the government to 'promptly provide evidence to substantiate the charges against Mbowe, or else release him'.

Magufuli's response to international criticism of human rights and repression of political freedom in Tanzania was to criticise or expel diplomats, with the European Union suspending aid as a result (AC Vol 60 No 3, From bullet to ballot).

Aside from its re-engagement with international bodies such as the World Health Organization, Hassan's government has made no attempt to prevent foreign officials from meeting opposition and civil society leaders. Activists and diplomats are likely to see Mbowe's trial as a measure of the strength of Magufuli-era securocrats in the new order.

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