N’DJAMENA (Reuters) - Six French aid workers were sentenced to eight years of hard labour each after a court in Chad found them guilty on Wednesday of trying to kidnap 103 children from the African country.
France, while calling the verdict a “sovereign decision”, said it would ask Chad to implement a 1976 bilateral judicial accord which would allow the convicted six to be transferred home to serve jail sentences in their own country.
The court in the capital N’Djamena handed down the sentence on the fourth day of the trial of the six members of the French humanitarian group Zoe’s Ark. They were arrested in October for trying to fly the 103 children, aged one to 10, to Europe.
The court also ordered the accused to pay compensatory damages of 40 million CFA francs (44,000 pounds) for each of the 103 children involved in the case, totalling 4.12 billion CFA francs ($9 million) in all.
After the sentence was read by the court president, the four men and two women were escorted from the courtroom among a jostling mob of journalists, their faces serious.
Defence lawyers and relatives of the six reacted with dismay to the sentence and called on France’s government to work for a solution with Chad that would enable them to be returned home.
Chad’s government had faced heavy popular pressure to punish the Zoe’s Ark members with an exemplary sentence.
But there has been widespread expectation of a diplomatic deal between Paris and N’Djamena to send them back to France, either through the judicial accord or a pardon granted by Chadian President Idriss Deby. None of these options were immediately mentioned by the court in delivering the sentence.
French Foreign ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said in Paris: “France, after obtaining the agreement of the members of Zoe’s Ark and examining the implementation of the judicial cooperation accord between France and Chad, in particular article 29, will ask the Chadian authorities for the transfer of the prisoners to France”.
One of the six’s defence lawyers, Gilbert Collard, criticised the sentence, saying there was no justice in Chad. “I hope the French government will move to quickly bring home our compatriots, who have been caught in a trap,” he told reporters.
Janine Lelouch, mother of Emilie Lelouch, one of the six convicted, told French television she also hoped the group could come home quickly, “because they can’t stand it much longer.”
“It’s bad, it’s very bad. They haven’t done anything wrong, they’re not criminals. I don’t understand ... It’s a masquerade ... I’m very worried about the future of my daughter,” she said.
Since the trial opened on Friday, the six had persistently rejected the abduction and fraud charges against them.
They testified they believed the children were orphans from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region whom they intended to give to European families for fostering. They said international law justified the humanitarian operation.
“Our intention was to fetch orphans from Darfur,” Zoe’s Ark’s leader, Eric Breteau, told the court.
Defence lawyers had accused the Chadian court of rushing through the trial under political pressure from Paris.
France is an ally of Deby and has a military contingent stationed in the landlocked former French colony.
French troops have been supporting Deby’s forces against eastern rebels and will provide the bulk of a European Union peacekeeping force due to be deployed in east Chad in January.
Chad’s government has said the six did not have permission to take the children out of the country.
Prosecutors said the group duped parents in eastern Chad into handing over their children with promises of schooling.
The French have blamed their local intermediaries for misleading them over the identity of the children, who Chadian and U.N. officials said were mostly not orphans and came from villages in Chad on its eastern border with Darfur.
Additional reporting by Alain Amontchi in N'Djamena and Elizabeth Pineau and James Mackenzie in Paris; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia