DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - A prominent Tanzanian journalist arrested in July was released on Monday after pleading guilty of tax evasion and money laundering in a case critics had said was politically motivated.
After Erick Kabendera acknowledged both crimes in court and agreed to fines of nearly 275 million shillings ($119,305.86), magistrate Janeth Mtega ruled he be freed.
“Finally I’ve got my freedom, it’s quite unexpected that I would be out this soon. I’m really grateful to everybody who played their role,” the 39-year-old investigative reporter said outside court.
In the charge sheet, prosecutors said Kabendera had with his wife - who was not detained or charged - registered two companies which were used as “vehicles of money laundering” without proper returns being filed.
Though his lawyers had originally rejected the charges, in October they said he was pursuing a plea bargain. [L5N26W3IZ]
The reporter has written for international publications including Britain’s Guardian and Times and was known for pursuing politically-sensitive investigations.
One article last year published by the East African newspaper reported a rift in President John Magufuli’s government with the headline “No end in sight as Tanzania’s ruling party CCM goes for ‘dissenters’.”
After he was arrested last year, the United States and Britain called the affair “irregular” and in violation of Tanzania’s criminal procedures law. [L8N25522K]
Rights groups saw the case as part of a pattern of tighter control on the media since the 2015 election of Magufuli.
Amnesty International said Kabendera’s plea came from “desperation”, possibly linked to poor health.
“While it is welcome news that Kabendera is out of prison ... it is outrageous that he had to pay such a hefty fine to gain his freedom after having been unjustly jailed for exercising his right to freedom of expression.”
Magufuli’s administration has shut down and fined some critical outlets, but denies muzzling the media.
Several hours after the ruling, the journalist’s lawyer Jebra Kambole said he had paid the 100 million shilling fine for one of the charges and would pay the other within six months.
A third charge, of assisting a criminal racket, was dropped.
Held at the Segerea maximum security prison on the outskirts of the capital Dar es Salaam, the journalist had appeared in court more than ten times, sometimes appearing frail.
In September, Magufuli said that people held on charges of tax evasion, money laundering and other financial crimes should be freed if they confess and return the cash. [L5N26D0LB]
($1 = 2,305.0000 Tanzanian shillings)
Reporting by Nuzulack Dausen; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Maggie Fick and Andrew Cawthorne
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