Comoros court sentences former president to life in prison

Former Comorian President Ahmed Abdallah Sambi (2nd R), escorted by gendarmes, arrives at the courthouse in Moroni in this file photo taken on November 21, 2022.
Former Comorian President Ahmed Abdallah Sambi (2nd R), escorted by gendarmes, arrives at the courthouse in Moroni in this file photo taken on November 21, 2022. © Ibrahim Youssouf, AFP

A court in the Comoros on Monday handed down a life sentence for high treason to ex-president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, who was convicted of selling passports to stateless people living in the Gulf.

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Sambi, 64, was sentenced by the State Security Court, a special judicial body whose rulings cannot be appealed.

Prosecutors in the Comoros had sought a life sentence for former president Sambi, who was tried in absentia for high treason.

Sambi, 64, an arch rival of current President Azali Assoumani, faced charges related to the alleged sale of Comorian passports to stateless people living in Gulf nations.

"He betrayed the mission entrusted to him by the Comorians," public prosecutor Ali Mohamed Djounaid had said last week before the elite State Security Court as he requested a life sentence.

Sambi, who led the small Indian Ocean country between 2006 and 2011, passed a law in 2008 allowing the sale of passports at an exorbitant fee.

The scheme aimed at the so-called bidoon – an Arab minority numbering in the tens of thousands who cannot obtain citizenship.

The former president was accused of embezzling millions of dollars under the scheme.

The prosecution said the cost was more than $1.8 billion – more than the impoverished nation's GDP.

"They gave thugs the right to sell Comorian nationality as if they were selling peanuts," said Eric Emmanuel Sossa, a lawyer for civilian plaintiffs.

Sambi was originally prosecuted for corruption, but the charges were reclassified as high treason, a crime that "does not exist in Comorian law", according to Sambi's French lawyer Jean-Gilles Halimi.

Sambi refused to attend the trial, as his lawyers said there were no guarantees he would be judged fairly.

He only appeared on November 21 with his lawyers asking the judge to recuse himself because he had previously sat on the panel that decided to indict Sambi.

Sambi had already spent four years behind bars before he faced trial, far exceeding the maximum eight months. He was originally placed under house arrest for disturbing public order.

Three months later he was put under pre-trial detention for embezzlement, corruption and forgery, in the so-called "economic citizenship" scandal before being slapped with the high treason charges.

"It is clear that Sambi is a hindrance to Azali Assoumani's political agenda and that he is doing everything to remove it," Sambi's daughter Tisslame Sambi had told AFP.

Among the defendants was French Syrian businessman Bashar Kiwan, who accused the government of seeking to pressure him into testifying against the former president in exchange for a pardon.

The Comoros presidency has formally denied these accusations.

The Comoros islands – Anjouan, Grande Comore and Moheli – have endured years of grinding poverty and political turmoil, including about 20 coups or attempted coups, since independence from France in 1975.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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