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TITLE: COMOROS HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES, 1994 AUTHOR: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE DATE: FEBRUARY 1995 COMOROS* The Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros comprises three islands and claims a fourth, Mayotte, which is still governed by France. Since the assassination of President Abdallah in 1989, the Comoros has passed from a de facto one-party state, through a brief rule by European mercenaries, to a government, chosen in multiparty elections in 1991, won by Said Mohamed Djohar. President Djohar has controlled the Government since 1991 but has faced strong opposition in the National Assembly, particularly from the Udzima Party, formerly the sole legal party. He has also survived several coup attempts. In the new elections held at the end of 1993, Djohar's Rassemblement pour la Democratie et le Renouveau (RDR) party won a majority in the Assembly, and the President consolidated his position in 1994. The 1992 Constitution mandates several institutions, including a senate, constitutional court, and island councils, but by year's end the Government had not established them. The Comorian Defense Force (FCD) and the gendarmerie are responsible for internal security. Both are under civilian control, answering to the Presidency and the Ministry of Interior respectively. Security forces committed a number of human rights abuses in 1994, and during the last elections there were reports of interference by members of the military acting on behalf of the Djohar Government. French officers serve as advisers to the FCD. The economy is dominated by agriculture, but there is a shortage of arable land, and soil erosion has exacerbated the problem. Revenues from the main crops--vanilla, essence of ylang ylang, and cloves--continue to fall, while the population (about 500,000) is growing at an extremely high rate. Comoros is a part of the French franc monetary zone, and while the 1994 devaluation of the franc may improve export and investment opportunities in the long term, it has had serious short-term consequences on the Government's finances. Comoros depends heavily on French financial assistance. The human rights situation did not improve in 1994. The Government abridged freedoms of the press and assembly, and security forces killed several persons in controlling a demonstration on the island of Moheli. The Government *There is no U.S. Embassy in the Comoros. Information on the human rights situation is therefore limited. continued to hold incommunicado an unknown number of soldiers who had allegedly participated in the 1992 coup attempt against the Government. The 1993 trial in the State Security Court of 16 other persons, including two sons of former president Abdallah, for participation in the 1992 coup attempt did not meet international standards of fair trial. The Government did permit officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit Abdallah's sons in prison. Prison conditions remained harsh, and societal discrimination against women continued as a serious problem. 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 known political killings, but on at least one occasion, government forces used excessive force against antigovernment demonstrators on the outer island of Moheli. According to credible reports, in June government forces fired into the crowd, killing three persons and wounding several others. The demonstrators also committed acts of violence during the melee. As far as known, there was no official investigation into the deaths of two persons reportedly killed (and secretly buried) by the gendarmerie on the eve of the legislative elections in December 1993 on the island of Anjouan. b. Disappearance There were no reported disappearances. 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, several persons, all members of opposition parties, who were arrested in late 1993 on the island of Anjouan, claimed that they had been mistreated by the gendarmerie at Koki prison in Mutsamudu. Prison conditions--especially in military prisons where most political prisoners are held--continued to be poor. A lack of proper sanitation, overcrowding, inadequate medical facilities, and poor diet are common problems. The Government admits these problems but has taken no action to remedy them. Those persons imprisoned in connection with the 1992 coup attempt reported that they were held in cramped cells, humid and poorly ventilated, without sanitary facilities, especially at Kandani barracks in Moroni. While the Government would not permit diplomats to visit the two sons of former president Abdallah, who were implicated in the 1992 coup attempt and are being held in Kandani prison, it did permit an ICRC official to visit them. There were no reports of abuse of women in prison. 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 hours. The law is silent about how long prisoners held for security reasons may be detained without being charged. The soldiers arrested after the 1992 coup attempt have been held incommunicado throughout 1993 and 1994 without charge or trial. The exact number of soldiers being held is unknown, but estimates range from 11 to 70. The Government does not use forced exile as a means of political control. 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. However, there are very few lawyers in the country, making it difficult to obtain legal representation. The Government does not provide free legal counsel to the accused. The Comorian legal system incorporates Islamic law as well as French legal codes. 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. The number of political prisoners held by the Government was not known at year's end. Omar Tamou and M'tara Maecha, who admitted to staging the 1992 coup, remained in prison serving life sentences. The State Security Court trial of 16 persons (4 in absentia), including the two sons of former president Abdallah, held in April 1993, has been judged unfair by international human rights monitors. There was evidence of executive interference during the trial (see the 1993 report), and defense lawyers had limited access to the defendants and case information. 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 or correspondence. Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: a. Freedom of Speech and Press The Constitution provides for freedom of expression, thought, and conscience, and the Government generally respected this right in practice with one important exception (see below). Comorians discuss and criticize the Government and its leading personalities openly. The several small independent newspapers and weekly semiofficial newspaper freely criticize the Government. However, radio is the most important medium for reaching citizens, and in 1994 the Government closed down the country's only nongovernment radio station. Credible sources cite the station's frequent criticism of the Government and ties to opposition politicians as the reasons for its closure. There is one government-controlled radio station, Radio Comoros. Comorians receive broadcasts from Mayotte radio as well as from French television without interference, but these carry only limited news about Comoros developments. Satellite antennae are popular and amateur radio licenses are issued without hindrance. Foreign newspapers are available, as are books from abroad. Although there is no university in the Comoros, secondary teachers and students speak freely, and students occasionally engaged in meetings critical of the Government. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the Government generally respects it in practice. There were numerous partisan political demonstrations during the year, some of which led to violence. On at least one occasion the Government refused an opposition party permission to hold a rally. c. Freedom of Religion An overwhelming majority of the population is Sunni Muslim. The Constitution designates Islam as the state religion. The Government permits non-Muslims to practice their faith, and Christian missionaries work in local hospitals and schools but by tradition 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. There are no refugees in Comoros. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government Citizens have this right, but it has not yet been fully demonstrated that they, in fact, have the ability peacefully to change their government through free and fair elections. The Constitution gives legal status to a multiparty system and provides for other fundamental rights. Nevertheless, the political system remains unstable, and many democratic institutions established by the Constitution, like the constitutional court, the senate, and the island councils, had not been created by year's end. President Djohar and his party, the RDR, continued to dominate the political process. Several opposition parties accused the Government of fraud in the 1993 election, although they participated during the year in the deliberations of the National Assembly. Village chiefs and Muslim religious leaders tend to dominate local politics. Traditional social, religious, and economic institutions also importantly affect the country's political life. Traditionally, Comorian society is characterized by male dominance, making it very difficult for women to become involved in politics. Women have the right to vote and participate in the political process; however, there are no female ministers or members of the National Assembly. Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights The Comoros Human Rights Association, established in 1990, continues to function, but many members are unwilling to criticize the Government vigorously for fear of losing their civil service positions. The Government cooperates with international human rights organizations, including the ICRC. However, it turned down a U.S. Embassy request to visit prisons in 1994 (see Section 1.c.). Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status The Constitution formally provides for the equality of citizens regardless of race, sex, or religion. Women Despite constitutional provisions for equality, men have the dominant role in Comorian society, and few women hold positions of responsibility in government or business. Societal discrimination against women is most apparent outside the major towns where women carry heavy farming and child-rearing duties, with fewer opportunities for education and wage employment. In contrast, change in the status of women is most evident in the major towns, where growing numbers of women are in the labor force and generally receive wages comparable to those of men engaged in similar work. While legal discrimination exists in some areas, in general, inheritance and 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 occurs, but medical authorities, the police, and women's groups believe that it is rare. In theory a woman could seek protection through 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 Government, while committed to the protection of children's rights and welfare in theory, has an extremely limited ability to put this into practice. Population pressure and poverty force some families to place their children into the homes of others. These children, often as young as 7 years of age, typically work long hours as domestic servants in exchange for food and shelter. The few legal instruments which address the rights and welfare of children are not enforced because of a lack of inspectors. Female genital mutilation is not generally practiced, and child abuse appears to be rare. People with Disabilities There is no legal protection for people with disabilities, but there is no evidence of widespread discrimination against the disabled in the provision of education or other services. No legislation is in force or pending concerning accessibility to public buildings or services 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. Teachers, civil servants, and dock workers have each created unions for purposes of collective action. Unions are independent of the Government. Teachers and hospital workers were on strike for most of the latter half of 1994 over a variety of grievances. There are no laws protecting strikers from retribution, but there were no known instances of retribution in 1994. There are no restrictions on unions joining federations or affiliating with international bodies. b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively Unions have the right to bargain collectively, and strikes are legal. In reality, with over 75 percent of the work force unemployed and the public sector far and away the largest employer, true collective bargaining does not take place. Wages are set by employers in the small private sector and by the Government, especially the Ministries of Finance and Labor, in the larger public sector. The Labor Code, which is only loosely enforced, does not set up a system for resolving labor disputes, and it does not prohibit antiunion discrimination by employers. 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 has few resources to enforce this provision, but outside of domestic work child labor is not an issue due to the general lack of wage employment opportunities for adults. Children generally help with the work of their families in the 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 over a decade and no longer reflect economic realities in the Comoros. The minimum wage for a laborer is about $11 (4,600 Comorian francs) per month. The Government periodically reminds employers to respect the Labor Code, which specifies 1 day off per week, plus 1 month of paid vacation per year, but does not set a standard workweek. There are no safety or health standards for the miniscule manufacturing sector. (###)
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