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Title: Comoros Human Rights Practices, 1995 Author: U.S. Department of State Date: March 1996 COMOROS* *There is no U.S. Embassy in the Comoros. Information available on the human rights situation is limited. The Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros comprises three islands and claims a fourth, Mayotte, which is still governed by France. The Comoros has a constitutional government but has been prone to coups since independence in 1975. The most recent came on September 28 when foreign-led mercenaries and disaffected Comorian troops attempted to overthrow the elected government of President Said Mohamed Djohar. French military forces sent to the island 1 week later arrested the mercenaries, reinstalled the elected Prime Minister, and freed Djohar but removed him for "medical treatment" to the French Department of Reunion. Citing constitutional provisions that take effect when the President is unable to rule, Prime Minister Caabi El Yachroutou declared himself Acting President, formed a coalition Government, and pledged to hold new presidential elections. In January 1996, President Djohar returned to Comoros to assume his ceremonial duties in accordance with an agreement brokered by the Organization for African Unity (OAU). Presidential elections were scheduled for March 6 and 16. The Comorian Defense Force (FCD) and the Gendarmerie are responsible for internal security. Both are under civilian control, but their loyalty is suspect as shown by the participation of several hundred soldiers in the September 28 coup. During the 1991 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 of this extremely poor country is dominated by agriculture, but there is a shortage of arable land; soil erosion exacerbates this 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 of 3.56 percent. The per capita income is approximately $400. The Comoros is a part of the French franc monetary zone, but the 1994 devaluation of the franc did not improve the import-dependent economy, and it has had serious short-term consequences on government finances. The Comoros depends heavily on financial assistance from France and the European Union. The human rights situation did not improve in 1995. The Djohar Government abridged freedoms of the press and travel and continued to hold soldiers who had allegedly participated in the 1992 coup attempt against the Government. They were released by the mercenaries who carried out the September 28 coup, and the coalition Government has granted them amnesty. 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 for a 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 to be 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 reports of political or other extrajudicial killings. As far as known, there has been 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 reports of politically motivated disappearances. c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment The Constitution provides for security of the person, and there were no substantiated reports of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Prison conditions 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, humid, and poorly ventilated cells without sanitary facilities, especially at Kandani barracks in Moroni. The Government claimed to have moved them to the regular prison, but press reports of the coup explicitly stated that they had been freed from Kandani barracks. While the Government would not permit diplomats to visit the two sons of former president Abdallah, who were implicated in the 1992 coup attempt, it did permit an ICRC official and some political associates 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 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 were apparently tried, but details of that trial are sketchy. Their exact number remained unknown, but reliable estimates were about 17. Those released by the mercenaries in September have been granted amnesty. The Government does not use forced exile as a means of political control. e. Denial of Fair Public Trial 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 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 few lawyers in the country, making it difficult to obtain legal representation. The Government does not provide free legal counsel to the accused. The 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. 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 attempt, were released September 28. The State Security Court trial of 16 persons (4 in absentia), including the 2 sons of former president Abdallah, held in April 1993, was 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. At year's end, how many, if any, of these people were still being held was unclear. 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, but the latter's editors are selected by the Minister of Information and are usually his allies. The government-controlled radio station, Radio Comoros, is the only station in the country following last year's closure by the Government of the only independent station. Credible sources cite the station's frequent criticism of the Government and ties to opposition politicians as the reasons for its closure. Comorians receive broadcasts from Mayotte Radio as well as from French television without interference, but these carry only limited news about Comoros developments. Satellite antennas 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 level teachers and students speak freely, and students occasionally engaged in meetings which criticized the Government. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the Government generally respects these rights in practice. 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 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 generally freely granted. However, before the September coup, ex-presidential candidate Mohamed Taki was refused an exit visa, which he requested in order to visit an organization's inauguration in France. The Government claimed that he was conspiring to overthrow the Government. There are no refugees in the 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, such as the constitutional council, the senate, and the island councils, have not been created. The new coalition Government is made up of President Djohar's ruling Rally for Democracy and Renewal (RDR) Party and all major opposition parties, including those that participated in the coup. In January 1996, the OAU brokered an agreement between the Caabi coalition government and President Djohar under which Djohar returned to the Comoros and assumed his symbolic and ceremonial functions as President. Presidential elections were scheduled to be held on March 6 (first round) and March 16 (second round). 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 male-dominated, 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 request by a foreign diplomatic mission to visit prisons (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, origin, or religion. The Government generally respects these provisions in practice but discourages the practice of religions other than Islam. Women 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. 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. 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 The Constitution provides that the disabled should not be abandoned by the State, and 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. 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 7,000 including government employees, and less than 2,000 excluding them. Teachers, civil servants, and dock workers are unionized. Unions are independent of the Government. Teachers and hospital workers go on strike intermittently, mostly because they do not get paid for months at a time. There are no laws protecting strikers from retribution, but there were no known instances of retribution. 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. 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. 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. 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 minuscule manufacturing sector. (###)
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