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UN expert suspends Comoros visit after obstructions

GENEVA (18 June 2019) - The UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, has suspended his official visit to Comoros, expressing regrets that he was unable to access all persons deprived of their liberty as considered necessary to fulfil his mandate.

Melzer was able to carry out a scheduled visit to the main detention facility on Grand Comoros, but his access to three other sites under the authority of the Gendarmerie and the judiciary in Moroni and the island of Anjouan was seriously obstructed.

“This is particularly concerning as I had received several credible allegations of intimidation, ill-treatment and excessive force at the hands of the Gendarmerie,” he said.

It was obvious that the responsible authorities had not taken the requisite preparatory measures to be able to host this visit under the applicable “Revised Terms of Reference for country visits by Special Procedures mandate holders of the United Nations Human Rights Council”*, which had been formally submitted to the Government months in advance, Melzer said.

In particular, apart from a few pre-selected facilities, the relevant authorities in charge of places of detention had not been informed and instructed by the responsible Ministries and, therefore, were not in a position to provide the expert with the required access and modalities, said the Special Rapporteur.

“The places of detention which could not be accessed at all included the main station of the Gendarmerie in Moroni, as well as the assigned residence of the former President of the Comoros,” Melzer said. “Moreover, I was prevented from completing my interviews with four out of five detainees held in the main station of the Gendarmerie in Anjouan, allegedly because I had not sought prior authorization of the responsible investigative judge for each individual interview.

“It is essential for the worldwide credibility of my mandate to be able to conduct unannounced visits to any place where persons may be deprived of their liberty, including not only prisons but also custody cells of the police and gendarmerie, as well as places used to keep persons under house arrest.

“While the Comorian authorities offered to facilitate my access if notified in advance, I cannot fulfil my mandate if I am required to seek prior approval for each facility or detainee,” said the expert. “It is not only a question of temporal efficiency but, more importantly, of the credibility, objectivity and independence of my mandate.

“Despite an ad hoc meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to try and resolve this issue, the necessary instructions were not communicated.

“Ultimately, a few days into my visit, I had lost so much time trying to secure unimpeded access that it was no longer possible to carry out a sufficiently representative and objective evaluation of the situation in the Comoros.”

On 15 June, halfway through the visit, the Special Rapporteur concluded that the integrity of the visit, which began on 12 June and was due to end on 18 June, had been compromised to such an extent that he had to suspend it.

Comoros has engaged with the UN Human Rights system through its reporting to the Universal Periodic Review. Despite this promising development, the suspension of this visit gives the unfortunate perception that the Government is not yet in a position to fully cooperate with international institutions so as to deliver tangible results in line with its declared commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms and universal values.

The expert thanked the Government for having invited him to conduct an official visit; only the second visit to the country by an independent expert. However, he also stressed that such visits involve the commitment of significant resources on the part of the invited mandate and, therefore, require commensurate and timely preparations on the part of the authorities so as to ensure the visit can be carried out in full compliance with international standards and the applicable terms of reference.

“I will issue my preliminary observations next week and will continue to engage in a constructive dialogue with the Government of Comoros and all relevant interlocutors. I intend to submit my report to the Human Rights Council in March 2020,” the Special Rapporteur said. “I hope it can be a useful road map for much needed legal, institutional and infrastructural reforms.”

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