On Tuesday, a Tanzanian court 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.
According to the government, 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 this year, a police officer was killed in clashes with the local Maasai community during an operation to place “markers” separating human and wildlife habitats.
Immediately after, twenty-five protesters were charged with murder, one of them has since been released.
On Tuesday, the 24 defendants “were released,” Yonas Masiaya, one of their lawyers, revealed to 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.
A separate 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.
The Maasai community filed a complaint against the Tanzanian government in September, challenging its decision to “tag” land to protect wildlife.
Tanzania has historically allowed communities like the Maasai to live in nature reserves and parks. However, the population and its herds have increased dramatically in recent years.
So far, the authorities have launched relocation programs, particularly out of the famous Ngorongoro Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage Site. According to the government, these relocations are voluntary.
In June, UN experts mentioned that 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.