Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1998.
The Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros comprises three islands and claims a fourth, Mayotte, which is governed by France. The Comoros has a democratically elected government and a Constitution but has been prone to coups and political insurrection since independence in 1975. During the year, a secessionist movement rose in Anjouan, the country's second largest island. Government troops attempted to put down the movement in September but were defeated. The Organization of African Unity and the Arab League launched a mediation effort designed to help the Government and the secessionists reach a peaceful settlement, and hosted a mediation session in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in December. Additional meetings were scheduled for 1998. President Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim, elected in March 1996, dissolved his government immediately following the confrontations in Anjouan and assumed full political powers, an act permitted by the Constitution, provided that new elections are held within 90 days. As of year's end, new elections had not been scheduled. In October more than 99 percent of citizens in Anjouan voted in a legal referendum to secede from Comoros. The Government and the international community refused to recognize the vote. The judiciary is independent.
The Comorian Defense Force (FCD) and the gendarmerie are responsible for internal security. Both are under civilian control.
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 550,000 continues to grow at a high rate of 3 percent annually. Per capita income is approximately $470 per year. Comoros depends heavily on foreign assistance from Arab countries, France, and the European Union.
The human rights situation worsened in 1997 due to widespread political protests and the Government's response to them. More than 50 civilians and soldiers died in confrontations between the Government and opposition political forces, most during the Anjouan military incursion in September. Several civilians were killed during protests earlier in the year, but the circumstances of their deaths are not clear. During the Anjouan crisis the Government suspended a number of civil liberties such as the right to peaceful assembly. Prison conditions remain poor, 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
At least one dozen civilians and 30 to 40 soldiers reportedly were killed in fighting between government troops and secessionists on the island of Anjouan from September 3 to 5. Both sides were armed, but there were no reliable reports of what occurred during the confrontations. The Government claimed that at least one soldier was beaten to death. Several nongovernmental organizations visited the island following the incursion, but have not issued any statements or published any reports that shed light on the nature of the fighting.
There were no reports of politically motivated 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. There were press reports that soldiers tortured people in Anjouan during demonstrations in March. Credible sources confirm that individual soldiers committed excesses.
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 1996 Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. 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.
The Government does not use forced exile as a means of political control.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The 1996 Constitution provides for an independent judiciary assured by the President. 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 Justice 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 September 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 legal counsel. Prior to the conclusion of the trial and sentencing, President Taki stated publicly that the trial process was unnecessarily slow and called for harsher punishments for criminals. The man was publicly executed on September 16, 1996, and was the first person to be sentenced to death since the late 1970's.
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.
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 has published commentary critical of President Taki.
The government-controlled radio station, Radio Comoros, is the only station in the country following the closure by the Government of Tropic FM. Residents 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.
There is no university, but secondary students and teachers speak freely and criticize the Government openly. Students led many of the antigovernment demonstrations early in the year. Security forces generally showed restraint and allowed the protests, despite the fact that they disrupted transportation and commerce.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The 1996 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
An overwhelming majority of the population is Sunni Muslim. The Constitution prohibits discrimination before the law 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 permits non-Muslims to practice their faith, and Christian missionaries may work in local hospitals and schools, but may not proselytize.
President Taki's 1996 bans on alcohol and immodest dress remain in effect.
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.
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
President Taki was elected in March 1996 in polling that international observers reported to be free and fair. Legislative elections were held in December 1996.
Citizens have the right to change their government, but it has not yet 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.
President Taki dissolved his Government in September following the military confrontation in Anjouan, named 12 "commissioners" to assist him, and assumed full political powers. The Constitution allows the President to rule in this fashion, but requires that new elections be held within 90 days. However, elections had not been held by year's end.
In October 1996, President Taki's proposed Constitution was approved in a national referendum. The new Constitution mandates that all political parties that did not win at least two seats per island in the December 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.
Comorian society is male-dominated, making it difficult for women to become involved in politics, although women have the right to vote and to run for office. No women hold senior government positions or serve in 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.
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 issue 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 even in the event of divorce.
The Government, while committed to the protection of children's rights and welfare in principle, has extremely limited ability to put this 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; 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 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.
d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment
The Labor Code defines the minimum age for the 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. 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 minimum wage for a laborer is about $67 (30,000 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 it does not set a standard workweek. There are no safety or health standards for the minuscule manufacturing sector.
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