A court in Comoros has sentenced Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, ex-president of the East African country, to life in prison for “high treason”, regional media reports and the AFP news agency have reported.
According to Tanzania Daily News, Sambi, who is a political rival of incumbent President Azali Assoumani, was sentenced by the State Security Court, a special judicial body whose rulings cannot be appealed, after he was convicted of selling passports to stateless people living in the Gulf.
“He betrayed the mission entrusted to him by the Comorians,” public prosecutor Ali Mohamed Djounaid accused in the court as he requested for a life sentence.
Sambi, 64, who led the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago nation between 2006 and 2011, enacted a law in 2008 allowing the sale of passports for high fees.
The controversial scheme was aimed to give nationality to the so-called Bidoon – an Arab minority numbering in the tens of thousands who cannot obtain citizenship.
According to Djounaid, the former president embezzled $1.8bn under the fraudulent scheme – more than the gross domestic product of the impoverished nation.
Local media quoted Emmanuel Sossa, a lawyer for civilian plaintiffs, as saying: “They gave thugs the right to sell Comorian nationality as if they were selling peanut.”
Sambi’s lawyer Jean- Gilles Halimi, however, refuted the accusations, saying no evidence had been provided for the missing monies and no bank accounts had been put forward to suggest a crime.
Sambi refused to attend the trial on the grounds that there were no guarantees he would be judged fairly. He briefly appeared once with his defence asking the judge to recuse himself since he had previously sat on the panel that decided to indict him.
The former leader, who was originally charged with corruption, had already spent four years in prison before he faced a trial. He was previously placed under house arrest for allegedly 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 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.