French charity workers jailed and repatriated

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Six French activists sentenced in Chad to eight years' hard labour for trying to kidnap dozens of children had their sentences converted into French jail terms of the same length by a court yesterday.

The six members of the aid group Zoe's Ark were arrested in Chad in October and found guilty last month of trying to kidnap 103 African children. They were later flown back to France under a cooperation agreement between the two countries.

The group said they were rescuing orphans from Sudan's Darfur region, a conflict zone across Chad's eastern border, and they intended to fly them to Europe for fostering there.

Most of the children were found to have come from families in Chadian border villages who were persuaded to give up their offspring in exchange for promises of education.

French law does not recognise hard labour and the court in the Paris suburb of Creteil converted their sentences into normal prison terms of eight years at a hearing that did not examine the merits of the case against them in Chad.

The court said that, under French law, the case amounted to "illegal confinement of minors under the age of 15".

Defence lawyers said before the hearing opened earlier this month that the Chadian sentences were not valid because they were imposed in what they described as an undemocratic state after a trial they said was not fair.