By Moumine Ngarmbassa
N‘DJAMENA, Dec 22 (Reuters) - Two women members of a French aid group accused of trying to fly 103 children illegally out of Chad to Europe on Saturday denied they had duped families into handing over their infants with promises of schooling.
Emilie Lelouch, an ambulance worker, and nurse Nadia Merimi were questioned by the judge and prosecution lawyers on the second day of the trial in the Chadian capital N‘Djamena of six members of the French humanitarian organisation Zoe’s Ark.
They repeated the defence offered in court on Friday by the Zoe’s Ark leader, Eric Breteau, who said the group members had believed they were helping sick, destitute orphans rescued from Sudan’s war-torn western Darfur region.
The prosecution alleges the six used deception to persuade villagers on Chad’s eastern border with Darfur to part with their children, promising education and care in local Chadian centres but without mentioning any plan to fly them to Europe.
Inquiries by U.N. and Chadian officials revealed most of the children were not orphans, and were not sick. Some children said they had been offered sweets and biscuits to leave home.
"We didn’t promise anything to the villagers. We only explained to them the aim of our association which is to help orphans from Darfur ... sick children from a war zone," Lelouch said, standing before the judge and speaking into a microphone.
The six French Zoe’s Ark members are charged with fraudulently trying to abduct 103 African children aged 1-10 from the landlocked oil-producing African country. They were arrested in October after Chadian authorities stopped them from putting the infants on board a chartered France-bound airliner.
Three Chadians and a Sudanese are accused as accomplices. Breteau said local intermediaries had told the group the children collected were Darfuri war orphans. He said France’s government had known about the operation from the outset.
If convicted, the accused face possible forced labour sentences of five to 20 years. But local lawyers and many ordinary Chadians widely expect them to be sent back to France after the verdict, either through bilateral judicial accords or through a pardon granted by Chadian President Idriss Deby.
A lawyer representing relatives of the children told reporters they were seeking 100 million euros in civil damages from the accused.
The Zoe’s Ark case, which has caused anti-French protests in Chad, has been an embarrassment for France, which supports Deby’s rule over the former French colony.
"DONATIONS" FROM FAMILIES
French troops have been helping Deby’s government forces fight eastern rebels and will provide the bulk of a European Union peacekeeping force due to be deployed in January in east Chad to protect refugee camps and aid workers there.
Chadian officials have accused the Zoe’s Ark group of trying to run an illicit adoption scheme under the guise of a humanitarian operation. Spokespersons for the group say adoption was not the goal but that families in France were waiting to receive and foster the children.
The N‘Djamena court judge questioned the accused about reports that these French families had paid several thousand euros each to receive a child.
"The receiving families made donations acoording to their salaries, their wallet," Lelouch told the court.
The group’s doctor, Philippe Van Winkelberg, told the court on Saturday French families had come forward offering to foster children from Darfur.
"There were no orders from children from France," he said, denying the existence of any commercial adoption scheme. (Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Richard Balmforth)