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Rights Groups Urge Tanzania to Free Critics of UAE Port Deal

FILE - A cargo vessel sails into the Port of Zanzibar on the island of Zanzibar on July 19, 2012.

DAR ES SALAAM — Rights campaigners urged Tanzania to release three people, including a former legislator, saying they could face treason charges "simply for criticizing" a deal with an Emirati company to manage the country's ports.

Amnesty International said Willibrod Slaa — a former parliamentarian and diplomat — and two activists were arrested at the weekend after publicly attacking the ports deal signed last October by President Samia Suluhu Hassan.

The agreement paves the way for DP World, a logistics company controlled by the Emirate of Dubai in the UAE, to manage all the ports in Tanzania in consultation with the government. It was ratified by parliament in June.

Critics of the deal say it poses a threat to Tanzanian sovereignty and security, but the government has defended the accord, arguing that it will improve efficiency, cut costs and increase revenues.

"The Tanzanian authorities' crackdown of critics of the UAE port deal reveals their growing intolerance to dissent," Amnesty's East and southern Africa director, Tigere Chagutah, said late Monday.

"The authorities must stop arbitrarily detaining activists simply for peacefully expressing their views and immediately and unconditionally release these activists," said Chagutah.

Slaa and his co-accused could face treason charges — a non-bailable offense that carries a death penalty — Amnesty said, citing the trio's defense lawyers.

At least two dozen people have been arrested since June for opposing the deal, Human Rights Watch said last week.

"The Tanzanian government should end these arbitrary arrests and take further steps to address the challenges to freedom of expression," said HRW researcher Oryem Nyeko.

Hassan came to power in March 2021 after the sudden death of her autocratic predecessor John Magufuli.

Although she has reversed some of Magufuli's most controversial policies, critics labelled her a "dictator" after Freeman Mbowe, leader of the Chadema opposition party, was arrested on terrorism charges in July 2021 before being released.

Chadema is among those opposing the deal, which gives DP World exclusive rights for a period of 12 months to negotiate with the government on how best to manage the country's 80 ports.

In June, Transport Minister Makame Mbarawa told parliament that the investment by DP World would improve the performance of Tanzanian ports, allowing more ships to dock there.

"The cost of transit cargo will also drop by almost half," he said.