MORONI (Reuters) - Comoros ex-president Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi has been formally charged with corruption and embezzling public funds in connection with a scheme to sell his country's passports, the prosecutor and court documents said.
Sambi, who had previously been questioned and placed under house arrest, will also be officially detained to prevent him from fleeing the country or undermining investigations by communicating with others accused of involvement in the scheme.
A lawyer for Sambi said he was being held in "prison-like" conditions. The ex-president, who was in power from 2006-2011, has previously denied all allegations against him.
The Comoros Islands, an Indian Ocean nation of about 800,000 people, began its programme to sell passports in 2008 as a way of raising much-needed cash.
The islands arranged a deal with the governments of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait, who wanted to provide stateless inhabitants there known as the Bidoon with identity documents, but not local citizenship. The governments would buy the Comoros passports and then distribute them to the Bidoon.
However, an investigation by the Comoros parliament released earlier this year found that thousands of passports had been sold outside official channels via "mafia" networks and at least $100 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.
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.
The court document said Sambi had abused his relative freedom in order to contact others who were involved in the scheme and still free to pressure them to hide evidence in order to undermine the investigation.
Another ex-president, Ikililou Dhoinine, who succeeded Sambi, and 10 other senior officials from their administrations have been banned from travelling but charges have not been brought against them.
Neither the document nor the prosecutor gave details on when any trial might take place.
Mahamoud Ahamada, one of Sambi’s lawyers, confirmed that Sambi had been charged and restrictions on him had been tightened, even though he was still sleeping in his own home.
"Sambi no longer has access to his telephone and the conditions of his detention are prison-like," he said. "It seems he has been detained and charged in relation to the (passport) issue."
Sambi's lawyers had challenged his house arrest and argued that the move was an attack on democracy in Comoros.
Current President Azali Assoumani has just won a referendum that will extend presidential term limits and end the system of rotating power between the archipelago's three main islands.
(Reporting by Ali Amir and David Lewis; editing by David Stamp and Gareth Jones)