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TITLE: COMOROS HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES, 1993 DATE: JANUARY 31, 1994 AUTHOR: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE COMOROS The Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros comprises three islands and claims a fourth, Mayotte, which is still governed by France. Until the assassination of President Abdallah in November 1989, the Comoros was a de facto one-party state. Following a brief rule by European mercenaries who had served as officers in the presidential guard, French troops arrived to stabilize the situation. Early in 1990, opposition politicians returned from exile, and a wide spectrum of political leaders and eight political parties contested presidential elections in two stages. The acting President, Said Mohamed Djohar, emerged the winner in the second round. Following the President's inauguration on March 20, 1991, the Djohar coalition Government went through several reorganizations and survived three coup attempts. The most recent one, on September 26, 1992, involved two sons of the late President Abdallah. While several opposition groups exist, the main opposition to the Djohar coalition comes from the Udzima Party, formerly the sole legal party. Postponed legislative elections finally took place in November and December 1992 and resulted in a truly representative National Assembly, which met for the first time January 8, 1993. However, the Assembly could reach no consensus with the President on his choice of ministers, and after one successful no-confidence vote and the threat of a second, Djohar dissolved it on June 18, 1993. French military advisers assisted the Djohar Government in restructuring and reducing the regular military and police forces to about 1,700 persons. Further reductions in 1993 left a force of 989 persons. Agriculture dominates the economy, but the Comoros is running out of arable land, and soil erosion on the steep volcanic slopes is exacerbating the problem. Revenues from the main crops--vanilla, essence of ylang ylang, and cloves--continue to fall as the population increases at one of the fastest rates in the world. Comoros is part of the French franc monetary zone and depends heavily on France for budgetary support and technical and security assistance. The human rights situation changed little in 1993. Nine persons suspected in the September 1992 coup attempt were tried, convicted, and given death sentences on April 24, 1993. The press gave the trial wide publicity, and a public vigil was kept in front of the courthouse. President Djohar on May 1 commuted the sentences to life in prison. He was pressured to release these prisoners but showed no willingness to issue a general pardon. All 13 people convicted of involvement in the coup attempt were still in prison at the end of 1993. One reason for the President's reluctance to pardon the prisoners was that at their sentencing two of the main defendants, Omar Tamou and Mtara Maesha, admitted to having staged the coup and vowed to do so again if released. The presiding judge said their future liberation depended on their behavior in jail. RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from: a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing There were no confirmed reports of such killings. b. Disappearance No disappearances were reported. c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment There were no substantiated reports of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. However, prison conditions usually were unhealthful, with overcrowding and inadequate diet common. Organizations wishing to inspect conditions at the military prison were denied access repeatedly, though the civilian prison could be visited regularly. For example, the 11 coup plotters held at the Moroni jail were visited by the Comorian Human Rights Association in August, but international organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), were denied access to the military prison where the two Abdallah sons are held. The sons are, however, permitted one visit a week by family members. The Comorian Human Rights Association confirmed that prison conditions at the Moroni jail were Spartan, with poor sanitation, inadequate diet, and overcrowding the norm. The Government admitted to these problems; it blamed them on financial constraints. d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile The Constitution does not specify a time limit between arrest and appearance before a magistrate; however, according to usual Comorian procedure, the time limit is 48 days. The law is silent about how long prisoners held for security reasons may be detained without being charged (see below). e. Denial of Fair Public Trial The 1992 Constitution provides for the equality of all citizens before the law and the right of all accused persons to defense counsel. The Comorian legal system applies Islamic law and an inherited French legal code. Most disputes are settled by village elders or by a civilian court of first instance. In regular civil and criminal cases, the judiciary is largely independent, and trials are public. The Supreme Court has the power to review the decisions of lower courts, including the Court of Appeals. National security cases--involving attempts to destabilize the country or overthrow the Government by violent means--are handled in the regular court system. In the past, defendants in security cases were held for up to a year, and then released without a trial. This pattern was broken by the trial of the suspected coup plotters in April 1993. Moreover, there were unconfirmed allegations that the President consulted with the judge during the trial. f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence The Constitution provides for the inviolability of home and property. There were no known cases of arbitrary interference with privacy, including with correspondence. The Paris-based Indian Ocean Newsletter, which is often highly critical of the Government, arrives unhindered through the international mail. Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: a. Freedom of Speech and Press The Constitution provides for freedom of expression, thought, and conscience, and Comorians discussed and criticized the Government and its leading personalities openly. A wide spectrum of political views was aired throughout the year. Comorians can receive radio broadcasts from Mayotte and two French television stations without interference. Satellite antennas are popular, and amateur radio licenses are granted without hindrance. Several small independent newspapers are published, and they operate without interference and freely criticize the Government. The weekly semiofficial newspaper also publishes articles critical of some government policies. Lack of funds and illiteracy are the biggest obstacles to a wide press audience. Foreign journals and newspapers are available, as are books from abroad. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association. Under the late President Abdallah, Comorians were circumspect about organizing public political gatherings, and political groupings were careful not to antagonize the Government. Since 1990, as new political parties formed and old ones resumed activity, numerous rallies and assemblies have taken place with a minimum of governmental interference. c. Freedom of Religion An overwhelming majority of the population is Sunni Muslim. The Constitution holds Islam to be the "wellspring of the principles and rules which guide the State and its institutions." The State upholds the right of non-Muslims to practice their faith, and there are churches for the small Catholic and Protestant populations. Christian missions work in local hospitals and schools, but by local custom they are not allowed to proselytize. d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation There are no restrictions on travel within the country or abroad, and exit visas are freely granted. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government Citizens now have the right to change their government through peaceful means. The Constitution gives legal status to a multiparty system and provides for other fundamental rights. It calls for new legislative elections to be held within 40 days of the dissolution of the National Assembly. Organizational problems, concerns about the security of voter lists, and financial difficulties caused these elections to be delayed until the end of December. The newly formed party of the President, Le Rassemblement pour la Democratie et le Renouveu (RDR), emerged with a slim majority in the Assembly. Opposition groups boycotted portions of the elections, citing irregularities on the part of the RDR. Although the nature of Comorian society makes it difficult for women to get involved in politics, they have the right to vote and participate in the political process. There were 11 women candidates in the 1992 legislative elections, none of whom was victorious. In August 1991, the first Comorian woman was appointed to a high government position: Sittou Raghadat Mohamed was named Secretary of State for Population and the Condition of Women. Traditional social, religious, and economic institutions also importantly influence the country's political life. Interisland rivalries have been a persistent and growing factor. Village notables and Muslim religious leaders tend to dominate local politics. Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights In May 1990, a group of private citizens established the Comoros Human Rights Association (CHRA, also known as the Comorian Association for the Rights of Man). The Minister of Justice praised the CHRA for its report on prison conditions and promised to improve them but little was changed during the year. The CHRA had access to civilian prisons and worked as well to ensure fair treatment of injured prisoners being treated at the local hospital. In one recent case, CHRA involvement resulted in the transfer of a prisoner charged with incest from the public hospital, where he was being mistreated, to a missionary facility. Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status Women The Constitution formally provides for the equality of citizens regardless of race, sex, or religion. Nevertheless, within Comorian society, men have the dominant role. Change in the status of women is most evident in the major towns. Women are not required to wear a veil. Women are finding increasing employment opportunities in the small paid labor force and generally receive wages comparable to those of men in similar work. However, school enrollment of females is well below that of males. A Comorian Women's Federation, formed in late 1989, has the goal of developing a family bill of rights. Property rights do not disfavor women; for example, the house the father of the bride traditionally provides to the couple at the time of their marriage remains her property, even in the case of divorce. Violence against women, including wife beating, occurs. However, medical authorities, the Women's Federation, and the police believe that violence against women is rare, in part because of the nonviolent nature of Comorian society. The Government has not addressed this issue specifically, and there are no studies or statistics indicating the extent of the problem. In principle, a woman can seek protection though the courts in the case of violence, but in reality the issue would most likely be addressed within the extended family or at the village level. Children The few legal instruments which address the rights and welfare of children are generally not enforced because of a lack of inspectors. People with Disabilities No legislation is in force or pending concerning accessibility to public buildings for people with disabilities. Section 6 Worker Rights a. The Right of Association The Constitution allows workers, including most public sector workers, to form unions and to strike, but these rights only became a reality in 1990 with the association of some workers into small unions. Farming on small landholdings, subsistence fishing, and petty commerce make up the daily activity of most of the population. Hence, the wage labor force is small; less than 8,800 including government employees, and less than 2,000 excluding them. Since 1990 groups of teachers, civil servants, and dock workers--who in previous years formed temporary associations to press their demands--have created unions for purposes of collective action. b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively There are no laws that prohibit antiunion discrimination or protect collective bargaining, which is still in its infancy. Labor legislation, to the extent that it exists, is found mainly in the Labor Code, which is not rigidly enforced. The Code does not address the issue of collective bargaining. In the private sector, wages are set by informal employee/employer negotiations. Public workers' wages are set by government policy through the Ministries of Finance and Labor. Economic rather than political impediments stand in the way of a more active role by labor organizations; unofficial unemployment figures exceed 70 percent. Most unions are in the public sector. Strikes in 1993 usually related to nonpayment of wages. In recent years it has not been uncommon for government workers to go months without being paid. There are no restrictions on unions joining federations or affiliating with international bodies. There are no export processing zones. c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor Forced or compulsory labor is forbidden by the Constitution and is not practiced. d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children The Labor Code defines 15 years as the minimum age for the employment of children. The Ministry of Labor is lax about enforcing this provision, but child labor is not an issue due to the lack of employment opportunities for adolescents and young adults. Children generally help with the work of their families in the large subsistence farming and fishing sectors. e. Acceptable Conditions of Work The Government mandates minimum wage levels. The rates, which vary by occupation, have not been changed in 13 years and no longer reflect economic realities in the Comoros. The minimum wage for a laborer is about $15 (4,600 Comorian Francs) per month. Efforts in 1993 to raise the minimum wage failed. However, most workers earn some income from subsistence agriculture or fishing and receive support from the extended family. The hours of work in any one job rarely exceed 35 hours per week.The Government periodically reminds employers to respect the Labor Code, which guarantees 1 day off per week, plus 1 month of paid vacation per year, but does not set a standard workweek. Overall, the Ministry of Labor sets very few standards. The authorities gave no concerted attention to health and safety standards in the miniscule manufacturing sector. (###)
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