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FILE PHOTO: Comoran President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi delivers his address during prayers for passengers in the missing Yemenia A310-300 plane and marking the country's 34th independence anniversary in Moroni July 6, 2009. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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MORONI (Reuters) - Ex-Comoros 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, according to the prosecutor and court documents.

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.

Comoros launched a programme with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in 2008 to sell citizenship to stateless people in those countries in return for cash to help develop the poor Indian Ocean archipelago.

However, an investigation by the Comoros parliament released earlier this year found that thousands of passports were sold outside official channels via "mafia" networks and at least $100 million of revenues went missing.

A Reuters investigation in June found that some of these passports 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 also faces charges linked to forgery and falsification of records. 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)

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Reuters