Comoros' President Azali Assoumani addressing the UN General Assembly on Thuesday
Moroni (Comoros) (AFP) - The voice of dissent in Comoros is increasingly being stifled -- opposition figures, a writer and even military leaders have been arrested while the media has been silenced by the government of President Azali Assoumani.
He is accused of trying to extend his rule "at any cost" and in July won 92.74 percent of votes cast in a referendum on increasing his powers that was boycotted by the opposition.
His victory meant that the constitution was amended so that he can now seek two consecutive terms in office instead of the previous single stint.
Initially he was elected in 2016 for five years but is thought to be pushing for fresh polls next year which he would consider the first to be subject to the amended constitution.
That could see Assoumani rule until 2029.
"The referendum was the most scandalous electoral charade of recent years," said the Third Way Collective, a group of activists critical of the government.
The modest turnout of 63.9 percent highlighted the extent of opposition to the changes.
"The polling stations were deserted but the ballot boxes were full. We are truly a banana republic," said former vice-president Mohamed Ali Soilihi.
The vote also highlighted the deep tensions that divide the Indian Ocean archipelago nation that has been rocked by several coups.
The last putsch was in 1999 when Assoumani, then the head of the army, seized power for the first time.
He gave up power in 2006 before being elected in 2016.
Since the referendum, police have carried out a wave of arrests.
"More than twenty," estimated Interior Minister Mohamed Daoudou.
"They were arrested for different reasons but they're all linked to the destabilisation of the country," he said.
Since the middle of August the offices of the main opposition Juwa party have been shuttered.
- A 'terrorist act' -
Six of its leaders including the current chief and former head of state Ahmed Abdallah Sambi have been prosecuted for corruption and held in jail or under house arrest.
"Since August 28, I have been unable to confer openly with my client as there is always a police officer eavesdropping," said Sambi's lawyer, Ahamada Mahamoudou.
Five other individuals, including the deputy head of the army colonel Ibrahim Salim, were arrested in August for a "terrorist act" and an unspecified "plot".
Writer Said Ahmed Said Tourqui has been held in isolation accused of attempting a coup.
Threatened with the same fate, several of his contemporaries have opted to flee.
Former vice-president Djaffar Said Ahmed Hassane headed to Tanzania after being made the target of an international arrest warrant.
Some opposition figures who stayed behind have opted for silence.
"We are extremely scared of being arrested," said one opposition activist who declined to be named.
The media has also borne the brunt of the government's crackdown on dissent with more than 20 radio stations closed while the editor-in-chief of government newspaper El Watan, Ahmed Ali Amir was demoted to the rank of general reporter.
"The regime has ushered in a climate of fear and intimidation," said seven action groups in a joint statement condemning the "dictatorial power grab".
But Assoumani's supporters insist the criticisms are fake news.
"The reality does not show a country led by a dictator," said presidency spokesman Ali Youssouf Mliva.
- 'Once a putschist...' -
"We don't have any deaths, nor torture victims -- just detainees accused of common law offences," he said.
Interior Minister Daoudou accused the opposition of failing to act constructively.
"An opposition makes criticisms, makes suggestions. Here we have a rabble of wrongdoers," he said.
The African Union dispatched a task force to Comoros early September in an effort to reconcile the schisms facing the nation, but the opposition announced Wednesday it had pulled out of the talks citing lack of progress.
"By muzzling the opposition and civil society, Assoumani is seeking to cling on to power by any means," said Florent Geel, the International Federation for Human Rights' Africa director.
"He's a converted former putschist. But once a putschist, always a putschist," he added, warning that Assoumani was sowing divisions between the archipelago's three main islands.
Differences between the principal islands are a highly sensitive subject in Comoros.
The creation of a single five-year presidential term, required to rotate between candidates from each of the islands from the 2000s, helped stabilise the country.
The scrapping of that system following Assoumani's referendum victory has revived tensions and, according to Geel, "threatens to deteriorate into conflict".