French jailed in Chad to return home

Other News Materials 28 December 2007 14:15 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - Six French charity workers sentenced to eight years of forced labor for trying to kidnap 103 children from this African country will return to France, a Chadian official said Friday.

The members of Zoe's Ark were going back to France on a special flight, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The defendants maintain they were driven by compassion to help orphans in Sudan's Darfur region, which borders Chad. An uprising that flared in Darfur in 2003 has led to the deaths of more than 200,000 people and forced 2.5 million to flee.

But subsequent investigations revealed most of the 103 children that Zoe's Ark was planning to fly out were Chadians who lived with at least one parent or close adult relative.

On Thursday, France asked Chad to hand over the charity workers, who were convicted and sentenced Wednesday. French Justice Minister Rachida Dati said in a statement that the repatriation request had been filed with her Chadian counterpart. Such requests are allowed under a 1976 judicial accord between the two countries.

France does not sentence convicts to forced labor, and, if the six are returned, it's possible the French justice system might commute or reduce their sentences.

Without confirming that the aid workers would be returned Friday, the office of President Nicolas Sarkozy said he spoke Thursday night by phone with Chadian President Idriss Deby about preparations for their transfer.

In October, Chadian authorities stopped the aid group's convoy with the children, whom the charity was planning to fly to France.

The case has embarrassed France and sparked protests in Chad, a former French colony.

Aid workers say their already difficult job along Darfur's border has been complicated by the suspicion some Chadians now have toward all foreigners professing to offer help. Days after the Zoe's Ark workers were arrested, the Republic of Congo announced it was suspending all international adoptions because of the events in Chad.

France's role in the region has already come under scrutiny in recent months as the European Union plans to send a military mission to Chad to protect refugees fleeing violence in neighboring Sudan.

The deployment of the approximately 4,300-member force, drawn largely from France, has been delayed because of a lack of necessary equipment. Last month, a Chadian rebel group declared a "state of war" against the French and other foreign armies - an apparent warning to the EU force.