The leader of Tanzania's main opposition party will stand trial for terrorism, a high court judge ruled Friday, in a case his supporters brand a politically-motivated move to crush dissent.
Chadema party chairman Freeman Mbowe was arrested last July 21 along with a number of other senior party officials, in a night-time police raid just hours before they were to hold a public forum to demand constitutional reforms in the East African country.
The 60-year-old, who has accused police of torturing him during nearly seven months in custody, was charged with terrorism financing and conspiracy.
After prosecutors finished filing evidence against Mbowe earlier this week, speculation mounted that the court in Dar es Salaam might release the politician, ending a saga which has raised concerns about the state of democracy and rule of law under President Samia Suluhu Hassan.
But on Friday, Judge Joachim Tiganga said Mbowe and three other suspects would have to face trial, a ruling denounced by Chadema.
"I have spent two days to go through the evidence provided by the prosecution... The court believes that all the accused have a case to answer," the judge said.
The next hearing is scheduled for March 4, when Mbowe and the other suspects will open their defence.
Crowds of supporters cheered Mbowe as he arrived at the court, with representatives from foreign embassies also present at the hearing.
- 'Bad day for justice' -
Chadema vowed it would continue to fight for "justice" for Mbowe.
"Today is another bad day in the history of Tanzanian justice," party secretary general John Mnyika told journalists at Chadema headquarters, where he and other supporters wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the words "No case to answer".
"This is a clear result of having a bad constitution that does not guarantee freedom of the judiciary."
Mbowe's arrest dimmed hopes that Hassan would turn the page on the autocratic rule of her predecessor John Magufuli, nicknamed the "Bulldozer" for his uncompromising style and crackdown on dissent.
Chadema has accused Hassan's government of meddling in the case and said the arrests reflected a deepening slide into "dictatorship".
In recent days however, the government has made seemingly conciliatory overtures to the opposition.
On Wednesday, Hassan met in Brussels with Chadema's deputy chairman Tundu Lissu, who was the party's candidate in the 2020 presidential election but lives in exile in Belgium following an attempt on his life in 2017.
Last week, the government lifted a Magufuli-era ban on four Swahili-language newspapers, including Daima -- a daily owned by Mbowe.
Prosecutors had said the allegations against Mbowe do not relate to the constitutional reform conference Chadema had planned to hold in the port city of Mwanza in July last year, but to alleged offences last year in another part of Tanzania.
Chadema has said prosecutors accuse Mbowe of conspiring to attack a public official, and giving 600,000 Tanzanian shillings ($260, 230 euros) towards blowing up petrol stations and public gatherings and cutting down trees to block roads.