U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1998 - Comoros

The Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros comprises three islands (Grand Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli) and claims a fourth, Mayotte, which is governed by France. While currently a republic with a democratically-elected president, Comoros has been prone to coups and political insurrection since independence in 1975. President Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim, elected in 1996, died in office on November 6. In accordance with the Constitution, Tadjiddine ben Said Massounde, the President of the High Council was named Interim President. On November 25, he formed a government of national unity and appointed the leader of the opposition, Abbass Djoussouf, as Prime Minister. Although the Constitution calls for the Interim President to hold presidential elections within 90 days of the death of the elected president, an election timetable had not been set by year's end. Both the Interim President and the Prime Minister took the position that the elections should be postponed until the secessionist crisis on Anjouan was resolved. The judiciary is nominally independent; both the executive and other elites influence court cases. The Anjouan secession crisis entered its second year. Earlier in the year, negotiations between the Taki Government and the Anjouan rebels had been hindered by both Taki's wavering interest in finding a negotiated solution and the Anjouan leadership's internal divisions. The split among those who favor the island's return to French colonial administration, those who want independence, and those who want a looser federation with the islands of Grand Comore and Moheli led to a week-long struggle among opposing factions in early December. The international community continues to recognize the Comorian Government's sovereignty over Anjouan. A 23-member Organization for African Unity (OAU) observer force is on the islands of Grand Comore and Moheli. The Comorian Defense Force (FCD) and the gendarmerie are responsible for internal security. Both are under civilian control. The security forces committed some human rights abuses. The economy of this extremely poor country is dominated by agriculture. Revenues from the main crops--vanilla, essence of ylang-ylang, and cloves--continue to fall while the population of 545,000 continues to grow at a rate of 3 percent annually. Per capita income is approximately $450 per year. Comoros depends heavily on foreign assistance from Arab countries, France, and the European Union. The human rights situation remained poor. Security forces shot and killed one person and seriously wounded five others in clashes with protestors on Grand Comore between May 11 and 13. The protests began over the May 6 closure by the Government of Radio Tropique, an opposition radio station. Unemployed youths and civil servants demanding payment of several months of wage arrears joined the protestors. The protests paralyzed the federal capital of Moroni. At the beginning of the year, there were widespread political protests in Anjouan over the island's future after the Anjouan leadership signed an agreement to normalize trade and travel between Anjouan and the other two islands. In July there were more political protests on Anjouan concerning the date for national day celebrations. In August and September on Grand Comore, there were further strikes and demonstrations by teachers and students protesting wage arrears and the scheduling of baccalaureate exams despite inadequate schooling. Prison conditions remain poor. There were some infringements on citizens' privacy rights, freedom of religion and freedom of movement. Societal discrimination against women continued to be a serious problem.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Security forces shot and killed one person and seriously wounded five others between May 11 and 13 during clashes with protestors on Grand Comore over the May 6 government closure of the opposition party's Radio Tropique. Protestors were joined by unemployed youths and civil servants demanding payment of several months wage arrearages (see Section 2.a.). The protests paralyzed the federal capital of Moroni. Groups throughout Anjouan are armed. For a week in early December, rival militias fought each other, forcing thousands of residents to flee their homes to the countryside. At least 10 persons were killed and about 50 injured. A cease-fire remained in effect at year's end.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits these practices, and there were no substantiated reports of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Security forces fired tear gas at the home of the owner of Radio Tropique and set it on fire during protests following the Government's closing of the station in May. One person was shot and killed and five were seriously wounded by security forces during the protests (see Section 1.a.). Prison conditions continued to be poor. A lack of proper sanitation, overcrowding, inadequate medical facilities, and poor diet are common problems. The Government has not taken action to remedy these problems.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and imprisonment; however, it does not specify a time limit between arrest and appearance before a magistrate. The law does not specify how long prisoners held for security reasons may be detained without being charged. In May President Taki freed a secessionist accused of trying to hire mercenaries in Madagascar to fight government troops. Ahmed Charikane, who had been in prison since February, stated that he agreed to work in favor of national reconciliation in return for his release. In February the Anjouan authorities released the last 18 of the Comorian soldiers they had arrested following the September 1997 government attempt put down secession. The Government does not use forced exile as a means of political control.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary enforced by the President; however, the executive and other elites exercise influence over court cases. The President names magistrates by decree. The High Council, made up of four members appointed by the President, three members elected by the Federal Assembly, and a member of each island council, also serves as the High Court of the Republic and rules on cases of constitutional law. The Constitution provides for equality before the law of all citizens. It does not mention the right to counsel. Trials are open to the public except for limited exceptions defined by law. The legal system incorporates Islamic law as well as French legal codes. 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. Most disputes are settled by village elders or by a civilian court of first instance. In 1996 a man who had allegedly murdered a pregnant woman in front of several witnesses was found guilty in a public, 2-day trial before a lay penal court. He had paralegal counsel. Prior to the conclusion of the trial and sentencing, former President Taki stated publicly that the trial process was unnecessarily slow and called for harsher punishments for criminals. The man was publicly executed, and was the first person to be sentenced to death since the late 1970's. In 1997 a second man was executed for a similar crime. He also had paralegal counsel. Both men appealed to a special tribunal established to hear their cases and to the President. There are no known political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

There were no known cases of arbitrary interference with privacy or correspondence, however, former President Taki's bans on alcohol and immodest dress remain in effect. Nevertheless, alcohol can be imported and sold with a permit from the Government. Security forces set the home of the owner of Radio Tropique on fire (see Section 1.c.)

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution does not provide for freedom of the press, but small independent journals exist side-by-side with the semiofficial weekly Al-Watwan. The independent newspapers freely criticize the Government, and even Al-Watwan published commentary critical of President Taki. The government-controlled radio station, Radio Comoros, is the only national radio station following the third closure by the Government of Radio Tropique, an opposition radio station. However, there are about 20 regional radio stations. Residents also receive broadcasts from Mayotte Radio, as well as from French television, without interference. While there are about five private local television stations, satellite antennas are popular and amateur radio licenses are issued without hindrance. Foreign newspapers are available, as are books from abroad. Internet service was introduced by the Government in September. In response to violent clashes in the streets in Moroni after the Government forced Radio Tropique off the air on May 6, security forces fired tear gas at the home of the owner of the radio station. Part of the house was set on fire as a result. Security forces shot and killed one person and seriously wounded five others during clashes with youths over the closure of the station (see Section 1.a.). There is no university, but secondary students and teachers speak freely and criticize the government openly. Public schools remained closed through most of the year on Grand Comore.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution does not provide for freedom of assembly and association, but the Government generally respected these rights in practice, except during the height of the crisis in Anjouan, when it banned antigovernment demonstrations.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion or religious belief but establishes an Ulamas Council, which advises the President, Prime Minister, President of the Federal Assembly, the Council of Isles, and the island governors on whether bills, ordinances, decrees, and laws are in conformity with the principles of Islam. The Government infringes on freedom of religion to some extent. An overwhelming majority of the population is Sunni Muslim; however, the Government permits non-Muslims to practice their faith, and Christian missionaries may work in local hospitals and schools, but they may not proselytize. Former President Taki's 1996 bans on alcohol and immodest dress remain in effect. However, alcohol can be imported and sold with a permit from the Government (see Section 1.f.).

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

One week after President Taki's death, the Government rescinded its ban on sea and air links between Grand Comore/Moheli and Anjouan. These prohibitions had been in effect since late August, with the result that travelers to Anjouan had to go via the French island of Mayotte. Air links with Anjouan were severed again when fighting on the island broke out in early December. Commercial air service to Anjouan had not resumed at year's end. The Government imposed a night curfew during the height of the demonstrations in May on Grand Comore. While any citizen can apply for a passport, the Government has run out of new passports. The Government has not formulated a policy regarding refugees, asylees, or first asylum.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

In theory, citizens have the right to change their government, but it has not been fully demonstrated that they, in fact, have the ability to change it peacefully through free and fair elections. The Constitution stipulates that sovereignty resides in the people and is to be exercised by elected representatives or through referendum. The crises that have beset the country since its independence in 1975, including a series of foreign-led coups and coup attempts, have made it difficult for citizens to exercise that right. Former President Taki was elected in 1996 in polling that international observers reported to be free and fair. Legislative elections were held in December 1996. Former President Taki dissolved his Government in September 1997, following the military confrontation in Anjouan and assumed full political powers, an act permitted by the Constitution, if new elections are held within 90 days. They were not. Former President Taki again dissolved his government in May. He charged his new Government of seven ministers with bringing about national reconciliation. He did not name a new Prime Minister and assumed that portfolio. After Taki's death in November, the President of the High Council of the Republic succeeded him as stipulated in the Constitution. The Constitution calls for elections to be held within 90 days of the death of the elected president, however, both the Interim President and the Prime Minister took the position that the election should be postponed until the secessionist crisis on Anjouan was resolved. In October 1996, former President Taki's proposed Constitution was approved in a national referendum. The Constitution mandates that all political parties that did not win at least two seats per island in the 1996 legislative elections are automatically dissolved unless they join other parties validly represented in the Federal Assembly. If only one party is represented in the Assembly, the party or group obtaining the second largest number of votes is permitted to continue its activities. 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. Although women have the right to vote and to run for office, Comorian society is male-dominated, making it difficult for women to become involved in politics. No women hold senior government positions or are 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 International Committee of the Red Cross.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution provides for equality before the law without discrimination based on race, religion, or religious belief but is silent on sex, disability, language, and social status. The Government generally respects these provisions in practice but discourages the practice of religions other than Islam. Islamic fundamentalism is growing in popularity as more students return to Comoros after studying in countries such as Sudan and Libya. 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 fact the problem is most often addressed within the extended family or at the village level. Men have the dominant role in society, and few women hold positions of responsibility in government or business. Societal discrimination against women is most apparent in rural areas where women have onerous 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 earn 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 that the father of the bride traditionally provides to the couple at the time of their marriage remains her property in the event of divorce. Children The Government, while committed to the protection of children's rights and welfare in principle, has extremely limited ability to put this commitment into practice. Population pressure and poverty force some families to place their children in 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, which is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health, is not generally practiced. Child abuse appears to be rare. People with Disabilities 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 does not provide for the right to unionize and strike, but these rights are practiced freely. Farming on small land holdings, subsistence fishing, and petty commerce make up the daily activity of most of the population. Hence, the wage labor force is small, and numbers 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 strike intermittently, mostly because they are not paid for months. 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

The Constitution does not mention forced or compulsory labor, but it is not practiced. There are no reports of forced or bonded labor by children.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The Labor Code defines the minimum age for employment as 15 years of age. The Ministry of Labor has few resources to enforce this provision, but except for domestic work, child labor is not a problem, due to the general lack of wage employment opportunities. There are no reports of forced or bonded labor by children. Children generally help with the work of their families in the subsistence farming and fishing sectors (see Section 5).

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 monthly minimum wage for a laborer is about $67 (30,000 Comorian francs). 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 it does not set a standard workweek. There are no safety or health standards for the minuscule manufacturing sector.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.