Politician, environmental lawyers charged over Bulyanhulu

The leader of an opposition party and two environmental lawyers were this week charged with sedition over their persistent claims that at least 50 artisanal miners were buried alive at Bulyanhulu, Tanzania’s biggest gold mine, in 1996.

Claims that small-scale miners were buried alive initially emerged soon after Bulyanhulu mining areas were cleared for the development of large-scale production when the mine was taken over by foreign investors in 1996.

The Tanzanian government and Barrick Gold, the Canadian company that owns the mine, have repeatedly denied the claims.

Augustine Mrema, leader of the Tanzania Labour Party (TLP), and Rugumeleza Nshala and Tundu Lissu of the Lawyers Environmental Action Team (LEAT) were charged with sedition for allegedly having published material and made speeches encouraging disaffection against the government.

Mrema told IRIN on Thursday that the police had charged him with writing a letter or giving a press statement in which he was alleged to have said that at least 52 people were buried alive in the Bulyanhulu mine, and that the government had not taken any steps to investigate the matter.

He said that, as he did not know what material the police were referring to, he had denied the charges and was waiting to see what was levelled against him. Mrema insisted that he did not intend to incite people against the Tanzanian government.

Nshala confirmed that he and Lissu had been held in connection with a statement last year claiming that the mining company, aided by the police, had filled in artisanal mining pits in 1996 "while knowing that there were people inside those pits".

"I am just waiting for the charges to be formally levelled against me and then I will explain myself," Nshala told IRIN. "Basically it is a campaign to try and silence us, but we think that the facts will come through in the case."

The trial is scheduled to begin on 31 May 2002. If convicted, the three accused face up to two years in prison and a fine of 10,000 Tanzanian shillings (about US $10).

The TLP and LEAT have been conducting independent inquiries into the Bulyanhulu allegations, and claim to have proof that artisanal miners were buried alive when the mine was being developed in 1996.

Vince Borg, head of Corporate Communications at Barrick Gold Corporation, told IRIN in March that those people who claimed to have evidence supporting the allegations of killings at Bulyanhulu should present it to the proper authorities.

One of Tanzania’s most respected legal figures, Judge Mark Bomani, called in the same month for an independent commission into the alleged killings in 1996. Bomani, a former attorney-general, said that only an independent commission could impartially establish the truth over claims that have sporadically emerged in the press over the last five years.