JOHANNESBURG - African civil society campaigners attending a conference in Tanzania were questioned and warned over the weekend, in what human rights activists say is part of a continuing clampdown on free speech in the East African nation.
Details are still emerging over what exactly happened to at least 40 civil society workers who ran afoul of security officials at this year's summit of the Southern African Development Community in Dar es Salaam.
But rights experts said Monday that the episode is another worrying sign of heightened paranoia and harassment from the government.
Catherine Eden, a lawyer for the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, says the incident stemmed from a misunderstanding. South African delegates to the 15-nation conference, she said, wanted to hold a short commemoration of the seventh anniversary of South Africa's deadly Marikana mine massacre on Aug. 16. Thirty-four striking miners were killed by police in the deadliest security incident since the end of apartheid in 1994.
So delegates at a side event sang the South African anthem, held a moment of silence and availed on their government to better protect its people. But something they wrote on a piece of paper convinced security police the delegates had bigger plans.
"They wrote some messages on the flip charts, of which the little content that was captured in the flip charts read, 'Stop killing our people,'" she said. "... So I think there was a national security person in that meeting and he saw those messages and so he interpreted that as a plan to demonstrate. But if you look closely, you can't see any relationship as to why they would want to demonstrate for the Marikana shootings in Tanzania."
It's not clear if anyone was actually arrested. Other rights groups say that some foreign campaigners were arrested, but not interrogated.
Eden says she was summoned by authorities as she went to the police station Friday night to meet with a local coordinator and then was let go with a warning. Police later went to delegates' hotel rooms looking for materials that they thought were a security threat. They found nothing, she said.
Janet Zhou, director of the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development, was one of the campaigners questioned by security forces at her hotel.
"I was afraid, I was insecure, I was traumatized to say the least," she told VOA, after returning home to Harare. "Because seven security details coming over after midnight and questioning me about a demonstration and placards that I wasn't going to be able to give them, was something else. I didn't understand it. It left me really terrified."
She said police then told her — and her 40-person delegation — to remain in their hotel all day Saturday. She asked them if they were under arrest, to which they did not reply.
Oryem Nyeko, a Kampala-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, noted that Tanzanian police didn't do anything technically illegal. But, he said, that doesn't make it right, either.
"I think it's a perfectly valid thing for police to do," he said. "However, the challenge with that is that it speaks to a wider problem in Tanzania as far as a closing civic space and the opportunities that people in civic society have to freely express themselves. This is part of a wider pattern of civic repression in the country."
International groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists have also warned of increased repression. Ahead of the SADC summit, the watchdog group noted its concerns about a "deeply troubling erosion of press freedom," and of "attacks on individual journalists, media suspensions, internet shutdowns, and restrictive legislation."
The CPJ made special mention of Tanzanian journalists Azory Gwanda, who has been missing since 2017, and Erick Kabendera, who was arrested last month and charged with economic crimes, which the organization says is in retaliation for his critical journalism.
Kabendera remains behind bars. On Monday, Eden, his lawyer, said the court decided to adjourn to give prosecutors more time to investigate. That will keep him in jail for more than a week longer, until Aug. 30.
Anna Henga, director of the Legal and Human Rights Center, said police actions only further a worrying trend in Tanzania under President John Magafuli, whom critics say is becoming increasingly authoritarian.
"This means the continuation of a limited civic space. Because this has happened since 2016. There are a lot of issues, there is a negative development toward limited civic space. And it is targeted to people like civil society organizations, the media, hindering the freedom of speech, the freedom of association."