France asks Chad to send jailed aid workers home

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The Independent Online

France has requested that Chad return the six French aid workers sentenced to eight years' hard labour for trying to kidnap more than 100 children so they can serve their sentences on home soil.

The French Justice Minister, Rachida Dati, made the formal demand of her Chadian counterpart yesterday under the terms of a 1976 judicial accord between Paris and its former colony in central Africa.

The four men and two women working for the French organisation L' Arche de Zoe (Zoe's Ark) said they were helping rescue orphans from war-torn Darfur, east of Chad. But authorities found that most of the 103 children were from Chadian families near the border. Prosecutors said the group had duped parents into handing over their children with promises of schooling. Even the mildest of critics condemned the group for being so amateurish.

The rushed, four-day trial that ended with the hard labour verdicts on Wednesday had fuelled speculation that Chad and France would strike a deal using the judicial co-operation accord.

The long forced-labour sentence which in theory should be restricted to working on building sites or roads coupled with the $9m (4.5m) compensation the six were ordered to pay the children's families shocked relatives in France.

"I had dared to hope that there would be an end and our children could have a normal life again," said Agns Breteau, the former wife of Eric Breteau, the group's leader.

But many commentators saw the tough sentences as a way of appeasing anti-colonialist rage in Chad and publicly reinforcing the independence of the country's justice system, before an eventual diplomatic deal. "The decision is probably the result of worried Chadian authorities seeking to placate a very real popular anger," wrote the French newspaper Le Monde. If the six aid workers do make it back to France, where hard labour does not exist, they would in effective have their sentences commuted to a straight jail term. But Chadian officials cautioned against jumping the gun.

"Any commutation of the sentence in this domain cannot be done without the accord of the Chadian authorities," Chad's Justice Minister, Albert Pahimi Padacke, told French radio.

But it would be difficult for Chad to refuse a request from such a key ally. French troops are permanently stationed in the capital, N'djamena, and last year helped fend off rebel attacks. And France is the main backer of a European Union peacekeeping force to be deployed early next year to eastern Chad, where President Idriss Dby faces a rebellion.