Comoros leader denies persecuting opponents ahead of vote

PARIS (AFP) – Comoros President Azali Assoumani has denied targetting his opponents in the run-up to March elections, calling the detention of numerous opposition members in the Indian Ocean nation as “unfortunate coincidences”.

Assoumani, who first came to power in a 1999 coup, insists the March 24 vote will be transparent, putting the impoverished islands on the path to becoming an emerging economy by 2030.

That’s despite widespread criticism from international monitors over a referendum last year on constitutional changes which could allow him to remain in power until 2029.

As for his opponents: “No opposition figure can say they were arrested because they spoke. There are no political arrests in the Comoros,” Assoumani told AFP in an interview during a private visit to Paris.

Several opposition politicians have been tried and convicted by the former French colony’s courts in recent months.

Ex-president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi is under house arrest for fraud and corruption, and the head of his Juwa party, Hassane Ahmed el-Barwane, was sentenced in December to seven years in prison for assaulting a soldier.

Four others, including former vice-president Djaffar Said Ahmed Hassane, who has fled to Tanzania, have also been sentenced to hard labour for life for plotting against the state and endangering national security.

“Our leaders are being arrested or hounded,” a senior member of Juwa told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Assoumani brushed aside the arrests as “unfortunate coincidences”.

He insisted the judiciary operated independently in the Sunni Muslim nation, which has been undergoing an exodus to the neighbouring French-run island of Mayotte.