International human rights organisations have condemned recent the harassment and arrest of gay men in Tanzania, following comments from a government official on plans to establish a task force to identify, track down and arrest people suspected of being gay.
Last week, ten men were arrested on suspicion of being gay on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar after members of the public reported them to police. They are being held at Chakwa police station in Unguja, with no charges brought against them, for allegedly conducting a same-sex marriage ceremony, and the police reported they found the men sitting in pairs “two by two”.
Shortly before the arrests, on 29 October, Dar es Salaam’s Regional Commissioner Paul Makonda announced plans to form a government taskforce to hunt down people believed to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI). He announced plans for the task force to begin its work on 5th November, and said members of the public should come forward with information on LGBTI individuals: “give me their names”. He also referenced plans for a “cure” for gay people, a practice which has been condemned internationally. On 4th November, a spokesperson for the Tanzanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “Mr Makonda was only airing his personal opinion" and these plans do not represent government policy, but the statements have been condemned for creating a hostile environment for LGBTI people in Tanzania. It has been reported that hundreds of people have gone into hiding since the announcement, and that the government has received more than 5,000 messages from the public (including more than 100 names).
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed disappointment in the announcement in statement, saying:
“Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Tanzania have already been subjected to growing violence, harassment and discrimination over the past two years,” High Commissioner Bachelet said. “And those defending their rights to health, to a life free from discrimination, violence and arbitrary arrest have themselves been increasingly targeted, even arrested.”
“This could turn into a witch-hunt and could be interpreted as a licence to carry out violence, intimidation, bullying, harassment and discrimination against those perceived to be LGBT.”
The High Commissioner also called for a review of laws criminalising consensual same-sex relations, and called on the Government of Tanzania to fulfil its duty to protect the human rights of all people in the country.
Human Rights Watch has reported that the government has shut down LGBT-friendly clinics, prohibited community organisations from doing HIV outreach targeting key populations, and arrested activists holding workshops on legal advice since John Magufuli was elected President in 2015. Tanzania is one of many African countries which upholds colonial era laws on same sex relationships, but has some of the harshest penalties in the world, with gay men facing 30-year prison sentences.
“This is a shocking blow following the Tanzanian government’s assurance that no one would be targeted and arrested because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
International civil society groups, including NSWP, are calling for swift international action to provide support to LGBTI people in the country.