File photo: Tanzania flag. Photograph:( AFP )
The populist president announced the mass pardon at an event marking Tanzania's national day
President John Magufuli on Monday ordered that around 5,500 inmates be freed from Tanzania's overcrowded prisons at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the country's independence from colonial rule.
The populist president, who has publicly expressed both sympathy and derision for the country's prison population, announced the mass pardon at an event marking Tanzania's national day.
"I believe this will relieve those who were jailed on minor charges, and those who were unable to have lawyers represent them or money to pay fines," Magufuli said in Mwanza, a city on the shores of Lake Victoria.
"The pardon will also help to decongest our prisons."
Magufuli, who came to power in 2015 as a corruption-fighting "man of the people", has toured overcrowded prisons in the past and ordered authorities to free those being held for long stretches without trial.
Tanzania's current prison population is around 36,000, the government says, with some facilities considerably over capacity.
In July, Magufuli said his visit to a jail in Mwanza left him "saddened" because many prisoners had languished there many years without trial.
But he also drew criticism from rights watchdogs in 2018 by ordering that prisoners be made to work "day and night" and suggesting they should grow their own food and be kicked if they are lazy.
Magufuli's talent for high-profile appearances that bolster his reputation as a no-nonsense leader have made him wildly popular among some.
But his intolerance of criticism, impulsiveness and disregard for due process worry others who see authoritarianism at the core of his populism.
The United States and Britain in August expressed concern about the steady erosion of due process under his rule, pointing to a growing tendency of authorities to resort to lengthy pre-trial detentions.
Nicknamed "tingatinga" -- meaning "bulldozer" in Swahili -- Magufuli has cowed the press, and many of his political opponents are routinely arrested. Some opposition activists have been kidnapped and beaten.
For the first time since his election, the main opposition party, Chadema, attended the national day celebrations, sharing the stage with Magufuli.
Chadema leader Freeman Mbowe called for a return to democratic norms and freedom of expression in Tanzania, which goes to the polls next year to choose a president.
"Mr President, you have the chance to make history by rectifying all these challenges," he said.
Chadema boycotted last month's local elections, citing intimidation, handing the ruling party a sweeping victory in polls criticised by the international community as lacking credibility.
Magufuli, 60, has not said whether he will stand for re-election to what would be his second and final term.