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Comoros ex-president says innocent of charges against him on passports scheme

MORONI (Reuters) - Former Comoros president Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi rejects charges of corruption and embezzling public funds in connection with a scheme to sell his country’s passports and will prove his innocence, his lawyer said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: Comoros President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi speaks during the Millennium Development Goals Summit at the United Nations headquarters in New York September 20, 2010. REUTERS/Chip East

A court document, dated Aug. 20 and seen by Reuters, showed Sambi and his associates also face charges linked to forgery and falsification of records.

Mahamoud Ahamada, Sambi’s lawyer, told Reuters by phone that he had met Sambi since he was charged and he denies the accusations. “President Sambi will prove his innocence by defending himself against all the accusations that have been levelled against him,” Ahamada said.

Sambi, who was in power from 2006 to 2011 and has been under house arrest since May, has previously denied all allegations against him.

The Comoros Islands began its programme to sell passports in 2008 as a way of raising much-needed cash. But an investigation by the Comoros parliament released in March found that thousands of passports had been sold outside official channels via criminal networks and at least $100 million (£77.7 million) of revenues had gone missing.

A Reuters investigation in June found that some of these passports had ended up being bought by Iranians, many of whom were involved in sectors that had been targeted by international sanctions in Iran.

Said Larifou, a lawyer who launched a citizens initiative calling for a criminal investigation into the passport scandal, called the case being brought against Sambi historic. “It is the start of a victory for the hundreds of Comorian citizens who dared to call for justice,” he told Reuters.

“The charging of former president Sambi, which will hopefully be followed by that of former president Ikililou (Dhoinine), are historic and defining legal steps in that they will no doubt help put an end to impunity,” Larifou said.

Dhoinine, who succeeded Sambi in 2011, has been questioned but not charged in relation to the passport programme.

The court document also said Sambi had abused his relative freedom while under house arrest to contact others who were involved in the scheme, then pressure them to hide evidence in order to undermine the investigation.

In a statement issued on Thursday, Sambi’s JUWA party repeated accusations that the parliamentary report on the citizenship programme was flawed and the case against Sambi was aimed at neutralising critics of the current government.

Reporting by Ahmed Ali Amir; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by David Lewis and David Holmes