Tanzanian artist jailed for burning painting of president

A Tanzanian portrait painter has been accused of burning a photo of the president. Samia Suluhu Hassanwas convicted of cybercrime and sentenced to two years in prison and/or a fine of $2,000 (£1,600).

Shadrack Chawla was arrested for allegedly recording and distributing a video in which he was seen burning a photograph of President Samia and verbally insulting her.

The 24-year-old painter admitted to the crime but was unable to defend his actions in court.

His arrest sparked a legal dispute, with some lawyers arguing that burning the paintings did not violate any laws.

Some social media users have started an online campaign to raise funds to pay the fine so that Chawla can be released from prison.

Tanzania enacted tough laws in 2018 banning the spread of “fake news”, but critics see it as a way to stifle freedom of expression.

Police said Chawla used “strong language” against the president in a video posted to his TikTok account on June 30 in Ntokela village, Mbeya city in the southwest of the country.

Local police chief Benjamin Cusaga told reporters on Tuesday that the artist’s crimes included burning an effigy of the president and disseminating offensive content online.

“It is not in the Mbeya culture to insult national leaders,” Kuzaga said.

Some lawyers argue that there is no law making it a crime to burn photographs of the president.

“Was the photo taken by a government photographer? They should come forward and explain the impact it has had on society and the country. Who can prove in law that burning photos is a criminal offence?” lawyer Philip Mwakilima told Mwananchi newspaper.

But the move, seen as unethical in Tanzania, has sparked public outrage.

On Thursday, Judge Shamra Shehagiro found Chawla guilty of distributing videos containing false information on TikTok in violation of the country’s cyber laws.

The court ruled that his actions amounted to cyber harassment and incitement.

Local media reports said Chawla was given a chance to defend himself against the charges but remained silent.

Prosecutors had asked the court to impose stiff penalties on the defendants to deter others from “disrespecting” the president.

The case has sparked debate in the country, with critics saying the sentence is too harsh and reflects a government crackdown on dissent.

President Hassan, who came to power in 2021, introduced reforms that opened up political and civic space.

But opposition parties and human rights groups have expressed concern the country is returning to regressive policies.

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