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8 November 2018

Tanzania: Targeting of LGBT defenders

Human rights defenders advocating for the rights of LGBT and sex worker communities in Tanzania are at severe risk of arrest, physical assault and sexual violence in detention as the government fails to condemn a violent anti-LGBT campaign waged by Dar es Salaam’s regional commissioner.

On 29 October 2018, regional commissioner Paul Makonda announced the creation of a surveillance task force to identify and arrest members of the LGBT community and sex workers. Makonda appeared on national television and radio threatening the public to report names, warning that those who failed to report a person later arrested for homosexuality would also face punishment. The task force has reportedly received nearly 19.000 messages naming less than 300 allegedly LGBT people, indicating that the same high profile names were repeatedly reported. LGBT rights defenders, who are often the most visible members of queer communities due to their public human rights work, are at particular risk of arrest.

Human rights defenders are being forced into hiding at a critical moment for their community. Many of those forced to flee lead on emergency response, countering police violence, protection trainings, advocacy for medical services, and community building activities. Human rights defenders’ response during periods of mass arrest is particularly critical, as police sexually assault the vast majority of LGBT people and sex workers who are detained in raids and “sweeps” on the street, which occur nightly across the country. Often, sexual assault perpetrated by police occurs on the street, in police vehicles, or during the first hours of arrest. Of the more than 80 LGBT people and sex workers interviewed by Front Line Defenders in June 2018, all but 2 had been sexually assaulted or raped by police. The majority were severely beaten; several were subjected to degrading and inhumane treatment.

On 4 November 2018, Tanzania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation released a statement distancing itself from the crackdown, referring to the campaign as the regional commissioner’s “personal views” and not the official policy of the state. But according to human rights defenders, Makonda’s incitement to violence has had clear effects on the safety and security of the LGBT community and sex workers, many of whom have fled their homes and villages for fear of being “outed.” At least one mass arrest of lesbian and gay people has occurred in Zanzibar, where 22 people are being held without access to a lawyer. Attacks on allegedly queer people on the street have been filmed in several regions including Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar, and Kilimanjaro. One video shows attackers shouting “Makonda’s person” at a victim, a phrase that has come to mean anyone who will be arrested by Makonda’s task force. Celebrities with large social media followings on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts have recorded videos reading lists of names.

Human rights defenders have consistently documented spikes in police violence and attacks on the street following high-level defamation campaigns waged by the President, Vice President, and Deputy Minister of Health, among others, since President John Magufuli came to power in 2015. Homosexual acts are illegal in Tanzania, punishable by up to 30 years in prison under a colonial-era law. Human rights defenders say high-level defamation campaigns serve to legitimise the violence already being perpetrated, and erode solidarity between LGBT communities and allied lawyers, medics and mainstream civil society organisations.

Front Line Defenders is gravely concerned for the safety and security of human rights defenders protecting LGBT people and sex worker communities, and has called on the government of Tanzania to immediately condemn the attacks.

For more information or to speak with Front Line Defenders, please contact:

Erin Kilbride