ABECHE, Chad (Reuters) - Chad’s authorities brought abduction and fraud charges on Tuesday against nine French and seven Spanish nationals it accused of illegally trying to fly 103 African children to Europe.
A Chadian prosecutor said the French, members of a group called Zoe’s Ark which said it wanted to place orphans from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur with European families, faced five to 20 years hard labor if convicted in the landlocked African state.
The French group has denied it was acting illegally.
Seven Spanish crew members of the plane chartered for the operation were charged as accessories, along with two Chadians.
Chadian President Idriss Deby has denounced “a crime against children” and demanded stiff penalties. He has suggested the children, aged three to 10 years old, could have ended up being sold to a pedophile ring or used to supply human organs.
The 16 Europeans were arrested on Thursday as they tried to fly the children, believed to be Sudanese and Chadian, out of Abeche in eastern Chad. A Belgian pilot has been detained separately but was not cited in Tuesday’s charges.
The case has caused embarrassment for France, which is an ally of Deby and has a military contingent stationed in Chad.
Paris will provide the bulk of a European Union peacekeeping force that is due to start deploying in east Chad next month to protect around 400,000 Sudanese refugees and Chadian civilians who have fled violence spilling over from Darfur.
France’s government, which has criticized the activities of the Zoe’s Ark group and opened an inquiry into illegal adoption procedures, said the accused would face justice in Chad.
“The Chadian justice system is sovereign,” French Justice Minister Rachida Dati told Europe 1 radio.
A bilateral judicial convention exists which would allow Chad to ask France to handle the case, but Dati said: “For the moment, the path of this convention has not been taken.”
Chadian officials said the detained Europeans would probably be transferred this week from Abeche, near Chad’s eastern border with Sudan, to the capital N‘Djamena in the west.
Journalists who were allowed to see and film, but not talk to, the detained French and Spanish held in Abeche’s law courts building, said they looked stressed, tired and disheveled.
A Reuters reporter said one of the French men made a gesture of hitting his face with his fist to indicate he had been beaten in custody. Another lay on a thin mat on the floor, apparently in pain, while a colleague examined him.
The accused include the president and other members of Zoe’s Ark. At least two French journalists are also among the group.
The children, some believed to have come from families who fled to Chad from Sudan’s Darfur, were due to be housed with host families in Europe who paid several thousand euros each.
Some of the children said their parents were still alive and they were lured from their villages on the Chad-Sudan border with offers of sweets and biscuits. They are being looked after at an Abeche orphanage by U.N. children’s agency (UNHCR) officials who are trying to establish where they came from.
Zoe’s Ark had previously said it aimed to have children adopted but stopped referring to adoption, which is not authorized in Chad or Sudan, after France’s Foreign Ministry issued a warning about the group in August.
Gilbert Collard, a lawyer for Zoe’s Ark, accused Chad’s government of using the situation for political ends.
Deby has accused the detained Europeans of treating Africans “like animals.” “So this is the image of the savior Europe, which gives lessons to our countries. This is the image of Europe which helps Africans,” Chad’s official presidency Web site quoted Deby as saying.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said late on Monday: “We hope the Spanish, who in the end were those that did the transport, are not responsible, remain uninvolved and can return home as quickly as possible.”
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Kerstin Gehmlich in Paris and Blanca Rodriguez in Madrid