Tanzanian journalist Erick Kabendera leaves the prison, February 24 2019. Picture: ERICKY BONIPHACE / AFP
Tanzanian journalist Erick Kabendera leaves the prison, February 24 2019. Picture: ERICKY BONIPHACE / AFP

Dar es Salaam — A prominent Tanzanian journalist was released on Monday after pleading guilty of tax evasion and money laundering in a case critics said was politically motivated.

After Erick Kabendera acknowledged both crimes in court and agreed to pay fines of nearly 275-million shillings ($119,305), magistrate Janeth Mtega ordered his release. He was arrested in July 2019.

“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,” Kabendera said outside court.

In the charge sheet, prosecutors said Kabendera and his wife — who was not detained or charged — had 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.

The reporter has written for international publications including The Guardian and The Times newspapers in Britain and was known for pursuing politically sensitive investigations.

One article in 2019 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 his arrest the US and Britain called the affair “irregular” and in violation of Tanzania’s criminal procedures law.

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 returned the cash.