Tanzania frees 24 Maasais accused of killing policeman

A Tanzanian court on Tuesday ordered the release of 24 Maasai after prosecutors dropped murder charges against them for the death of a policeman during a protest against a government-protected area project, their lawyer said.

The Loliondo Maasai are opposed to Tanzanian authorities, who they accuse of trying to evict them from part of their historic habitat area in northern Tanzania to make it a private safari and hunting area, a claim the government denies.

The government says it wants to protect 1,500 square kilometres of the 4,000 square kilometer area near the Serengeti Park from human activity, leaving 2,500 square kilometres for Maasai herders.

In June, a police officer was killed in clashes with the local Maasai community during an operation to place “markers” separating human and wildlife habitats.

Twenty-five protesters were charged with murder, one of whom has since been released.

On Tuesday, the 24 defendants “were released,” Yonas Masiaya, one of their lawyers, told AFP, adding that “the prosecutor’s office said (it) had no intention of pursuing the case.”

“There was no tangible evidence to justify their prosecution,” he said.

Another defense lawyer, Jebra Kambole, told AFP: “We are happy that they are finally free. “These people were detained even before the investigations and remained in detention (…) without any clear reason,” he said.

In September, the Maasai community filed a complaint against the Tanzanian government, challenging its decision to “tag” land to protect wildlife.

Tanzania has historically allowed communities like the Maasai to live in nature reserves and parks. But the population and its herds have increased dramatically in recent years.

The authorities have launched relocation programs, particularly out of the famous Ngorongoro Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage Site. These relocations are voluntary, according to the government.

In June, UN experts said they were “concerned about Tanzania’s plans to relocate nearly 150,000 Maasai from Ngorongoro and Loliondo without their free, prior and informed consent.

In 2009, thousands of Maasai families were relocated from Loliondo to allow an Emirati safari company, Ortelo Business Corporation, to conduct hunting expeditions there.

The government canceled this agreement in 2017 after accusations of corruption.