A prominent Tanzanian journalist arrested in July was released 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 fines of nearly 275 million shillings ($119,305.86), magistrate Janeth Mtega ruled he be freed.
“Finally I’ve got my freedom. It’s quite unexpected I would be out this soon. I’m grateful to everybody who played their role,” the 39-year-old investigative reporter said outside court.
In the charge sheet, prosecutors said Kabendera had with his wife – not detained or charged – registered two companies used as “vehicles of money laundering” without proper returns being filed.
His lawyers originally rejected the charges in October they said he was pursuing a plea bargain.
The reporter has written for international publications including Britain’s Guardian and Times and was known for politically sensitive investigations.
An article last year 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 he was arrested, the US and Britain called the affair “irregular” and in violation of Tanzanian criminal procedures law.
Rights groups saw the case as part of a pattern of tighter control on the media since Magufuli’s election.
Amnesty International said Kabendera’s plea came from “desperation”, possibly linked to poor health.
“While it is welcome that Kabendera is out of prison it is outrageous that he had to pay such a hefty fine after being unjustly jailed for exercising his right to freedom of expression.”
Magufuli’s administration shut down and fined some critical outlets, but denies muzzling the media.
Hours after the ruling the journalist’s lawyer Jebra Kambole said he paid the 100 million shilling fine for one charge 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 Dar es Salaam, the journalist appeared in court more than ten times, sometimes appearing frail.
In September, Magufuli said people held on charges of tax evasion, money laundering and other financial crimes should be freed if they confess and return the cash.