Strong-arm tactics threaten political stability

Human rights activists on the Comoran island of Anjouan have accused the government of riding roughshod over basic civil liberties, which has contributed to growing hostility between the state and the local population. The latest incident occurred in early March, when ongoing public protests over a teachers' strike left two high school students dead, amid allegations of heavy-handed police conduct. In what it claimed were legitimate concerns over national security, authorities on the tiny island imposed an immediate curfew in the capital, Mutsamudu. Civil rights groups slammed the move as the latest in a string of alleged attempts to muffle criticism of the leadership of President Mohammed Bacar. In January authorities suspended the news programme of the island's most popular independent radio station when it agreed to air the views of striking doctors, after the state radio had decided to censor them. Ahmed Allaoui, president of the Comoros Foundation for Human Rights (CFHR), noted that although the suspension was eventually lifted, "it was a clear warning to the private media and other civil rights groups that the government will not, under any circumstances, tolerate criticism of its policies". "It is quite noticeable that although the station has resumed its broadcasts, it is a lot more careful when it comes to commenting on the government and politicians," he observed. Allaoui told IRIN his role as head of the rights group had landed him in hot water with the island authorities, who have accused him of attempting to undermine the government. Last month he was fired from his job as an administrator in the education ministry, for what the department claimed was 'breach of contract', but Allaoui believes he was targeted for his vocal opposition to Bacar's government. "It is not a coincidence that my job as a civil servant has been terminated, especially since I have made my objections to the government's practices quite public," he said. Education officials were reluctant to comment on Allaoui's dismissal, saying investigations into the issue were "pending", but an official from the ministry of the interior told IRIN there were concerns that a "group of intellectuals" had banded together to agitate for the overthrow of Bacar's administration. In February five men - two leading clerics, a teacher and two former military officers - were arrested on charges of conspiring to unseat Bacar. According to rights groups, the men have not been brought to trial and are still languishing in jail. The second largest of the three islands in the Comoran archipelago, Anjouan is home to around 250,000 inhabitants, who have seen their fair share of political troubles. In 1997 the island unilaterally declared independence from the Comoros. Four people were killed and another 20 wounded when a general strike led to the storming of the airport and the erection of barricades in defiance of the authorities. Hundreds were subsequently detained and there were widespread allegations of torture. Following military action and an international blockade of the island, the authorities negotiated a return to Comoros that included the establishment of the Comoros Union. One local political commentator pointed out that the alleged strong-arm tactics now employed by Bacar's government could be traced back to previous authoritarian regimes governing the island. Attoumane Dhoffir, a member of CFHR said: "When Mr Bacar become president we thought we would no longer have to worry about voicing our opinions, but we realise that nothing has changed - there needs to be more respect for the constitution and people's rights." Dhoffir added that one of the obstacles facing human rights groups was the lack of funding to support awareness campaigns. "As an organisation we have been hardly able to convey to the population what their rights are," he said. "We cannot even hold town meetings because we do not have the money to hire the hall, so it is a lot more difficult to address rights abuses if people do not know what they are entitled to."