PARIS Two former French charity workers convicted in Chad of abducting children only to be later pardoned were sentenced to jail in Paris on Tuesday for defrauding the French families who had hoped to adopt the youngsters.
Zoe's Ark, a non-profit group, was accused of trying to illegally fly 103 children out of Chad to France and six of its members were convicted and jailed in 2007 in a case that sparked angry protests in the central African country.
The six, including the charity's president Eric Breteau and his companion Emilie Lelouch, were returned to France to serve their sentences, but were freed in March 2008 after being pardoned by Chad's President Idriss Deby.
Four of the six charity members went on trial in Paris in December, alongside a journalist and a doctor, accused of fraud, acting as unauthorized intermediaries in an adoption and aiding foreign minors to stay illegally in France.
Breteau and Lelouch were sentenced to two years in prison on Tuesday while the others received suspended jail sentences of between six months and a year.
"(Breteau and Lelouch) could not have been unaware that their project was illegal. They blatantly lied to the (French) families," the Paris court said in its judgment on Tuesday.
About 30 potential foster parents who had paid to adopt through Zoe's Ark were civil parties in the Paris trial.
The charity's members had testified in Chad that they believed they had been rescuing war orphans from Sudan's conflict-ridden Darfur region, which borders Chad.
But U.N. and Chadian officials said the children, aged from one to 10, came from the Chad-Sudan border area and had at least one living parent who had been persuaded to give up their offspring in exchange for promises of education in eastern Chad.
A police investigation found that Zoe's Ark had paid village leaders to deliver children to centers from which they were to be taken out of the country.
More than 350 French families were promised a child from Darfur and paid up to several thousand euros each in the hope of adopting.
Breteau and Lelouch, who had been living in South Africa, had initially refused to attend the Paris trial, but were present in court on Tuesday when the sentence was announced and arrested immediately afterwards.
They were also ordered to pay a fine of 50,000 euros ($66,900) each and banned from working in childcare again. Zoe's Ark was fined 100,000 euros and ordered to be disbanded.
($1 = 0.7474 euros)
(Reporting by Chine Labbe; Writing by Vicky Buffery; Editing by Pravin Char)