'Child smuggling' aid workers are released after presidential pardon

All six French aid workers convicted in December of trying to smuggle over a hundred children out of Chad were freed last night after receiving pardons from Chad's president.

The four men and two women were working for the organisation L'Arche de Zoe – or Zoe's Ark – and maintained they thought they were rescuing orphans from the war-torn Darfur region, west of Chad, though international aid groups subsequently found the children were from Chadian families duped by promises of education.

Dominique Aubry, one of those detained, was seen on television emerging from one of the prisons in northern France – where the group had been transported to begin sentences of eight years' hard labour. "I will try to be cleared one day," he told reporters.

Earlier, the first of two decrees signed by President Idris Deby confirmed: "A presidential pardon has been granted to the six French members of Zoe's Ark." It went on, naming the prisoners: "The presidential pardon is accorded to Eric Breteau, Emilie Lelouch, Dominique Aubry, Alain Peligat, Philippe Van Winkelberg and Nadia Merimi." A second decree pardoned the local intermediary, Mahamat Dagot, a community chief from the Chadian town of Tine.

The aid workers were detained on 25 October as they were set to put the children on a French-bound flight from the town of Abeche.

The Zoe's Ark head Eric Breteau and five colleagues were sentenced on 26 December before being sent to France to serve equivalent sentences.

Gilbert Collard, a lawyer for Breteau and Lelouch, said his clients intended to speak out about the affair. "They will be able to defend themselves as they were not able to defend themselves up to now," he told the Reuters news agency.

Commentators had seen the tough sentences as a way of appeasing strong anti-colonialist feelings in the country.

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