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World : Africa : Comoros
 

Over the centuries, the islands were invaded by a succession of diverse groups from the coast of Africa, the Persian Gulf, Indonesia, and Madagascar. Portuguese explorers visited the archipelago in 1505. "Shirazi" Arab migrants introduced Islam at about the same time. Between 1841 and 1912, France established colonial rule over Grande Comore, Anjouan, Mayotte, and Moheli and placed the islands under the administration of the governor general of Madagascar. Later, French settlers, French-owned companies, and wealthy Arab merchants established a plantation-based economy that now uses about one-third of the land for export crops. After World War II, the islands became a French overseas territory and were represented in France's National Assembly. Internal political autonomy was granted in 1961. Agreement was reached with France in 1973 for Comoros to become independent in 1978. On July 6, 1975, however, the Comorian parliament passed a resolution declaring unilateral independence. The deputies of Mayotte abstained. As a result, the Comorian Government has effective control over only Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli. Mayotte remains under French administration.

Comoros faces no external threats. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, various groups of European mercenaries, all supposedly supported by foreign powers, played a significant role in Comorian domestic politics. Since independence the Comorian government has contended with several internal threats. This domestic instability reflects the weakness of the island's central government, the unpopularity of its rulers, and the presence of European mercenaries. On July 6, 1975, the Comorian Chamber of Deputies approved a unilateral declaration of independence from France, named Ahmed Abdallah as president, and constituted itself as the National Assembly. On August 3, 1975, a group of notables, radicals, and technocrats overthrew the Abdallah regime. These individuals replaced the National Assembly with a National Executive Council, led by Prince Said Mohammed Jaffar. In January 1976, Ali Soilih succeeded Jaffar as president. Soilih embarked on a revolutionary program, based on Maoist and Islamic philosophies, to facilitate the development of an economically self-sufficient and ideologically progressive state. Apart from alienating France, which terminated its aid and technical assistance programs to Comoros, Soilih's policies aroused resentment among the island's traditional leaders. To make matters worse, Soilih established his version of Mao's Red Guards, the Commando Moissi. These vigilantes, trained by Tanzanian military advisers, further alienated Comorian society by acting as a repressive political police. Growing popular discontent resulted in four unsuccessful coup attempts against the Soilih regime during its two and a half-year existence.

On May 12-13, 1978, a fifty-member European mercenary unit, hired by Ahmed Abdallah in France and led by French Colonel Robert Denard, finally overthrew Soilih. Two weeks later, security personnel killed Soilih, allegedly while he was trying to escape from house arrest. Ahmed Abdallah and his former deputy, Muhammad Ahmed, then became co-presidents. Although it initially experienced some opposition because of the role played by Denard and his mercenaries in the coup, the new government eventually gained popular support. Its popularity rested on its ability to restore relations with France, which resumed economic, military, and cultural aid to the island, and to gain assistance from the European Community and several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait. On October 22, 1978, Abdallah was elected to a six-year term as president. Despite the influx of foreign aid, political conditions in Comoros remained unsettled, largely because Abdallah failed to establish a government that included adequate representation for the people who lived on the outlying islands of Njazidja, Nzwani, and Mwali. Moreover, Abdallah frequently used repressive methods against his real and imagined adversaries. In this turbulent atmosphere, opponents of Abdallah's regime made at least four unsuccessful attempts to overthrow his government. In February 1981, loyal Presidential Guard (Garde Presidentielle--GP) units crushed an army mutiny on the main island of Grande Comore and the authorities subsequently arrested about 150 people. In December 1983, another plot surfaced after the arrest of a group of British mercenaries in Australia. According to the Comorian government, they had planned to overthrow Abdallah on behalf of a former Comorian diplomat, Said Ali Kemal. A March 1985 plot against Abdallah by the GP also failed and resulted in seventeen people being sentenced to forced labor for life and fifty others being imprisoned for their part in the coup attempt. In November 1987, French mercenaries and South African military advisers, based in Comoros, reportedly thwarted a coup by a small number of GP and armed forces personnel. On November 27-27, 1989, the Abdallah regime finally fell after members of the GP, which included several European advisers under Colonel Denard's command, assassinated the president. As outlined in the constitution, the Supreme Court president, Said Mohamed Djohar, became interim head of state, pending a presidential election. However, Colonel Denard and his associates engineered a coup against Djohar, disarmed the army, and killed at least twenty-seven police. Growing French and South African pressure forced Colonel Denard to leave Comoros for South Africa. In April 1990, the Comorian government announced that France would maintain a military team on the islands for two years to train local security forces. Despite the presence of French troops and a general amnesty for all political prisoners, Comoros continued to suffer from internal instability. On August 18-19, 1990, armed rebels unsuccessfully tried to overthrow Djohar by attacking various French installations on the island of Njazidja. A small group of European mercenaries allegedly the coup attempt and believed that the Djohar regime would fall if they could force the French to withdraw from the islands. The authorities detained more that twenty people in connection with the uprising. Another coup attempt occurred on September 26, 1992, when Lieutenant Said Mohamed and 100 Comorian army personnel tried to overthrow Djohar. According to plotters, the coup's purpose was "to ensure state security and to put in place a true democracy." Troops loyal to Djohar quickly crushed this coup attempt. Since then, political instability has continued to plague Comoros, largely because of opposition to Djohar and growing demands for democratization.

Today, the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros is ruled by Colonel Azali Assoumani, who took power in a coup in April 1999. The country consists of three islands (Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli) and claims a fourth, Mayotte, which is governed by France. Comoros has been prone to coups and political insurrection since its independence in 1975. In April 1999, army commander Colonel Azali staged a bloodless coup and overthrew President Tadjiddine Ben Said Massounde, the Interim President who had held office since the death of democratically elected President Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim in November 1998. In May 1999, Azali decreed a constitution that gave him both executive and legislative powers. In December 1999, in response to international criticism, Azali appointed a civilian prime minister, Bianrifi Tarmidi; however, Azali remains the Head of State and army Commander in Chief. In December 2000, Azali named a new civilian Prime Minister, Hamada Madi, and formed a new civilian Cabinet. When he took power, Azali said that he would step down in April 2000 and relinquish power to a democratically elected president, but by year's end, he had not done so. In response to pressure to restore civilian rule, the Government organized several committees to draft a new constitution, including the August 2000 National Congress and November 2000 Tripartite Commission. The opposition parties initially refused to participate in the Tripartite Commission, but on February 17, representatives of the Government, the Anjouan separatists, the political opposition, and civil society organizations signed a "Framework Accord for Reconciliation in Comoros," brokered by the Organization for African Unity (OAU). The Accord called for the creation of a new Tripartite Commission for National Reconciliation to develop a "New Comorian Entity" with a new constitution. Although the Commission set June as its goal for completing the constitution and December for national elections, disagreements over procedure and goals delayed completion of the draft constitution. In August representatives from each island in August debated the first draft. On December 23, the draft Constitution, which calls for the reincorporation of Anjouan, Grand Comoros, and Moheli into a new federation that would grant the islands greater autonomy, was approved overwhelmingly in a referendum described by international observers as free and fair. Under the terms of the new Constitution, President Azali had 7 days to decide to either lead the transitional government until elections in March 2002 or to stand in the elections himself; however, by year's end, he had neither stepped down from office nor withdrawn from the March 2002 election. The new Constitution provides for the continuation of an independent judiciary. In the past, both the executive and other elites influenced the outcome of cases; however, there were no reports of interventions during the year.

The Anjouan secession crisis subsided after the August 2000 signing of the "Fomboni Declaration of National Unity" by Azali and separatist leader Lieutenant Colonel Said Abeid. The Fomboni Declaration provides for a loose confederation between the islands, giving each island the ability to maintain an army and conduct its own foreign relations. In August separatist soldiers, reportedly dissatisfied with pay and promotions, started protests that led to the overthrow of Abeid in Anjouan. A three-man military commission replaced him as leader of Anjouan; Abeid fled to Mayotte and was placed under house arrest. The new military commission pledged to support the reconciliation process begun by the February Accord. Between November 3 and 4, Abeid made an unsuccessful attempt to regain control of Anjouan by attacking forces loyal to the new military commission, but he quickly was defeated. The coup attempt did not appear to threaten the Fomboni Agreement. On December 19 on Moheli, 13 French mercenaries launched a coup attempt that the army defeated after several hours of fighting. Colonel Hassan Harouna, a defense official in the government of former President Abdoulkarim, was arrested the same day and accused of organizing the coup in order to prevent the December 23 referendum.

RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

Islam and its institutions help to integrate Comoran society and provide an identification with a world beyond the islands' shores. As Sunni Muslims, the people follow religious observances conscientiously and strictly adhere to religious orthodoxy. During the period of colonization, the French did not attempt to supplant Islamic customs and practices and were careful to respect the precedents of Islamic law as interpreted by the Shafii school (one of the four major legal schools in Sunni Islam, named after Muhammad ibn Idris ash Shafii, it stresses reasoning by analogy). Hundreds of mosques dot the islands. Practically all children attend Quranic school for two or three years, starting around age five; there they learn the rudiments of the Islamic faith and some classical Arabic. When rural children attend these schools, they sometimes move away from home and help the teacher work his land.

Bans on alcohol and immodest dress are enforced sporadically, usually during religious months, such as Ramadan. Alcohol can be imported and sold with a permit from the Government.

INCIDENCE OF CRIME

Comoros has not provided data for any United Nations or INTERPOL surveys of crime; however, brief discussion of crime in Comoros is given in the United States State Department's Consular Information Sheet. The sheet states that in Comoros petty crime is common. Pick-pocketing, purse-snatching, and various types of scams are the most common forms of crime confronting U.S. travelers in crowded market areas, parks, and at the beaches.

POLICE

The Comorian Defense Force (FCD) and the Gendarmerie are responsible for internal security and are under Azali's direct control. Security forces committed some human rights abuses.

In addition to the police and the military, there are many groups throughout Anjouan that are armed, including paramilitary forces, militias, and civilians. In 1999 battles between rival militias resulted in approximately 12 deaths; however, there were no such deaths reported during the year 2000. The new Constitution prohibits such practices, and there were no reports of security force brutality, and unlike in the previous year, police did not threaten Christians on Grande Comore. In October 2000, police used tear gas to disperse forcibly a demonstration; some protesters were arrested, although all were released by year's end following various periods of detention.

Unlike in the previous year, there were no reports that separatist security forces tortured, beat, and otherwise abused persons on Anjouan in 2001. In August 2000, separatist authorities on Anjouan arrested approximately 100 opponents of the Fomboni Declaration, following demonstrations against the agreement. There were unconfirmed reports that as many as 28 of those arrested, who primarily were members of the Comoros Red Crescent Society and the opposition party Group for the Recovery Initiative for the Anjouan Movement (GIRMA), were tortured, and, in one case, raped. By November 2000, the Government had freed all of those arrested; however, there were no reports of government action against those persons responsible for the abuses. In 1999 quasi-police authorities known as embargoes arrested, beat, and detained three local Christians; there was no further information on the incident at year's end.

The new Constitution prohibits such practices, and there were no reports of security force brutality, and unlike in the previous year, police did not threaten Christians on Grande Comore. In October 2000, police used tear gas to disperse forcibly a demonstration; some protesters were arrested, although all were released by year's end following various periods of detention.

In 1999 quasi-police authorities known as embargoes arrested, beat, and detained three local Christians; there was no further information on the incident at year's end.

DETENTION

The new Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, teenagers, who were considered "trouble makers," occasionally were arrested arbitrarily. In August 2001, Anjouan separatist leader Abeid fled to Mayotte after he was overthrown; he was placed under house arrest upon his arrival but was released on August 12, 2001. In March Judge Omar ben Ali of the Tribunal de premiere instance ordered the arrest of an attorney on a charge of contempt of court, allegedly because he had not followed the proper procedures in registering himself as the attorney of record in the case. On April 12, the libel case was settled out of court, and the charges against the attorney were dropped immediately. In August 2000, authorities arrested four opposition politicians, including Cheik Ali Bacar Kassim, former Member of Parliament (M.P.) and owner of the opposition radio station Radio Tropique, for allegedly plotting to overthrow Colonel Azali. The four were detained in a military prison, despite a judge's order to transfer them to the civilian prison in Moroni. In November 2000, one of the four escaped from prison. Two others then were released, leaving only Cheik Ali in prison. At the end of November 2000, authorities reportedly freed Cheik Ali on the condition that he leave the country; when he refused to leave, he was returned to prison. Cheik Ali reportedly was denied access to defense counsel until he launched a hunger strike in protest. In June Cheik Ali pled guilty to illegal possession of guns. He was sentenced to 2 years in prison, with 1 year suspended; in August he was released following the completion of 1 year in prison. After the August 2000 demonstrations against the Fomboni Declaration, separatist authorities on Anjouan arrested and beat numerous opposition supporters. In September 2000, 3 of the approximately 100 persons arrested were freed by a tribunal in Anjouan's capital, Mutsamudu. The remaining 97 remained in detention, and no trial date had been scheduled by year's end. Two Azali opponents who reportedly led a coup attempt in March 2000 continued to be detained in a military prison. Although one of the opponents was believed to have escaped from prison in November 2000, both opponents remained in detention at year's end. No trial had been scheduled for either opponent by year's end. On Anjouan local authorities continued to attempt to suppress or convert the Christian minority. One Anjouanais Christian estimated that embargoes in Anjouan detained and released several days later approximately 50 Christians, both men and women in an 18-month period between 1999 and 2000. Unlike in the previous year, there were no reports of such incidents during the year.

COURTS

The Comorian legal system rests on Islamic law and an inherited French legal code. Village elders or civilian courts settle most disputes. The judiciary is independent of the legislative and the executive. The Supreme Court acts as a Constitutional Council in resolving constitutional questions and supervising presidential elections. As High Court of Justice, the Supreme Court also arbitrates in cases where the government is accused of malpractice. The Supreme Court consists of two members selected by the president, two elected by the Federal Assembly, and one by the council of each island.

The new Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, in the past, the executive and other elites have exercised influence over court cases, and the executive intervened in at least two cases in 2000. The Head of State names magistrates by decree. In August 2000, despite regulations that prevent the removal of judges, Colonel Azali transferred to other duties nine judges, who had initiated a strike calling for judicial reform and regular payment of salaries. In October 2000, Azali issued a presidential decree that reduced the number of Supreme Court justices from nine to five and transferred judges to other courts. Although the official reason for the action was a lack of resources, opposition critics accused Azali of punishing certain judges for questioning government policies and participating in a strike by judges and court personnel. In the case of detained opposition politician Cheik Ali Bacar Kassim and three others, the trial judge resigned in protest when authorities failed to obey his order to transfer the opposition leaders from a military prison to a civilian prison. Authorities stated that the poor condition of the civilian prison prohibited the transfer.

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. 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 military Government does not provide legal counsel to the accused. Most disputes are presented to village elders for possible resolution before being taken to court.

CORRECTIONS

Prison conditions are poor. A lack of proper sanitation, overcrowding, inadequate medical facilities, and poor diet are common problems. The military Government has not taken action to remedy these problems. Unlike in previous years, there were no reports of deaths as a result of disease in prisons during the year 2001. Female prisoners are held separately from male prisoners. Juveniles are not imprisoned; they are returned to the custody of their parents. Pretrial detainees are not held separately from convicted prisoners. The military Government permits prison visits by independent monitors, and two such visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Association Comorienne des Droits de l'Homme (ACDH) occurred during the year.

WOMEN

Domestic violence against women occurs, but medical authorities, the police, and women's groups believed that it was rare. In theory a woman could seek protection through the courts in the case of violence, but the problem is addressed most often within the extended family or at the village level. Female genital mutilation (FGM), which is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health, generally is not practiced. Prostitution is illegal; however, most Comorians do not consider it to be a problem.

Men have the dominant role in society. A matriarchal African tradition affords women some rights, especially in terms of landholding. Societal discrimination against women is most apparent in rural areas where women have farming and childrearing duties, with fewer opportunities for education and wage employment. In contrast, an improvement in the status of women was 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; however, few women hold positions of responsibility in business. 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 has not taken any specific action to protect or promote children's welfare. Legal provisions that address the rights and welfare of children were not enforced because of a lack of inspectors. Child abuse appears to be rare. Child prostitution and child pornography are criminalized under the law. Unmarried children under the age of 13 are considered minors, and they are protected legally from sexual exploitation, prostitution, and pornography.

TRAFFICKING IN PEOPLE

The law does not prohibit trafficking in persons; however, there were no reports that persons were trafficked to, from, or within the country.

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Dr. Robert Winslow
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San Diego State University