On May 19, 2020, 20 human rights organizations including the Legal and Human Rights Center in Dar es Salaam, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Tanzanian President John Magufuli, urging the authorities to ensure that all detainees and prisoners have access to lawyers and to take steps to decongest prisons.
On March 19, prison authorities banned all visits to the country’s prisons indefinitely to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The ban includes prisoners’ lawyers, which has denied the prisoners access to legal counsel and slowed down plea bargaining and resolution of cases, lawyers told Human Rights Watch.
“Banning all visitors to prisons has meant that detainees can’t speak to their lawyers, depriving them of the right to a fair trial,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government has taken important steps to slow the spread of Covid-19, but this shouldn’t come at the expense of basic rights.”
Tanzania currently has 509 reported cases of Covid-19 infections, and the government has encouraged social distancing and the wearing of masks. However, there have been no restrictions on movement and court proceedings continue to take place. Defendants are not allowed to physically attend court sessions except through video links in prisons where these facilities are available.
Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the ban on prison visits means that they are unable to speak to and properly represent their clients, as they cannot meet them in person and there are no arrangements to speak with them securely over the phone. Two lawyers said the courts assigned them clients they have never spoken to because of this ban. The Tanzanian authorities have made no efforts to implement alternative measures for lawyers to access their clients in detention sites via secure phone calls or video conferencing.
Plea bargaining, which the government instituted in 2019 to reduce prison overcrowding and court backlogs, cannot take place because inmates cannot meet their lawyers to discuss their cases. Family members cannot meet their loved ones in detention and are not able to bring them food, forcing them to eat prison food which, according to one lawyer, is of poor quality.
Tanzania’s prisons are overcrowded and pose a risk to prisoners’ health. According to government statistics, prisons in the country are 9 percent over capacity and do not allow social distancing, creating conditions in which the virus could spread more easily.
On April 25, President Magufuli pardoned 3,717 prisoners in line with recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO) to decongest prisons and limit the spread of the disease. However, the country’s prisons remain overcrowded.
The Tanzanian government should urgently take further steps to reduce the prison population, including reviewing the cases of pretrial detainees, who make up the majority of prison inmates. It should also implement alternative measures for lawyers to contact their clients, through secure telephone calls or video links.
The government has an obligation to ensure the right to health of prisoners, detainees, and other persons deprived of their liberty. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is considered reflective of customary international law, guarantees everyone the right to a fair trial and to be represented by counsel. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Nelson Mandela Rules”) also provides for the right to legal representation. The Tanzanian constitution provides everyone a “fair hearing” before a court.
“The overcrowding in Tanzania’s prisons adds huge risks for prisoners’ health in the face of Covid-19,” Nyeko said. “The government should prioritize further decongesting and improving conditions so all prisoners are safe.”