New Doubts Over Chad 'Adoptions'

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Displaced Sudanese children in Darfur

French authorities have repeatedly called on officials in Chad to respect presumptions of innocence in their case against six French humanitarian workers charged with trying to abduct 103 children — an operation Chadian investigators suspect may have been part of a clandestine adoption-for-pay scheme back in France. But each day brings additional allegations challenging the nature of the mission NGO Zoe's Ark claimed it was conducting in Chad.

The most damning revelation to arise in the drama came on Thursday, when results of an on-going inquiry by two United Nations organizations refuted the claim by Zoe's Ark officials that the 103 children were seriously ill or frail orphans from war-torn Darfur who were being rushed to France for urgent care. Instead, the U.N. investigation found at least 91 of the children had at least one parent still alive. Confirming the status of the remaining 12 is taking longer, due to their young age and difficulties communicating.

Just as troubling, the same U.N. officials said most of the children hailed not from Darfur, but rather villages near to the eastern Chadian city of Abéché, where police arrested the Zoe's Ark workers on Oct. 25 as they sought to spirit the kids away on a chartered plane. Zoe's Ark officials had not obtained authorization from Chadian officials to expatriate the children, saying their condition required immediate action that time-consuming administrative procedure would have stalled. Members of Chad's government, however, have said many of the children that were being hustled aboard the plan were in fine health, and had been wearing fake bandages and unconnected IV drips to give the misleading impression of injury or illness.

The six arrested workers have denied the most sinister charges of attempted kidnapping. They've also rejected allegations their goal was to sell the children to couples in France who paid as much as $8,400 to Zoe's Ark parent organization Children's Rescue to take Darfur orphans into their homes. Children's Rescue officials in France have acknowledged the Oct. 25 operation to remove the children from Chad lacked required authorization, but say the urgency of getting the children care made rule-breaking expediency necessary. Zoe's Ark's French lawyer, meanwhile, has suggested there is a political motive driving Chadian leaders who initially denounced the NGO as a "pedophile" group using humanitarian cover for "child trafficking." Chad, the lawyer notes, has objected to a French-led deployment of European Union peacekeeping forces in eastern Chad to protect Darfur refugees, and could be exploiting the Zoe's Ark case to whip up anti-foreigner sentiment. Chadian leaders deny those accusations, and say the E.U. troop deployment will proceed as planned. Regardless, other humanitarian aid groups attending to the Darfur crisis says the atmosphere in the region has turned suspicious and hostile since the Zoe's Ark affair exploded.

That surge of suspicion hasn't solely been limited to Chad. French government officials have condemned Zoe's Ark for its illegal attempt to fly the children out of Chad, and acknowledge they were sufficiently concerned about ambiguity in Children's Rescue's actual mission that they repeatedly warned its leaders from breaking any rules.

Indeed, one French diplomat following the case tells TIME that alarming areas in Children's Rescue literature on its intentions led France's Foreign Affairs Ministry to issue numerous warnings about unethical activity. "The initial description of the operation spoke of the 'adoption' of not 103, but 10,000 Darfur orphans — adoption that's not only illegal under Chadian law, but would also be in violation of French law regulating adoption," the diplomat said.

He also pointed to a report in Friday's Le Parisien paper, citing a copy of the mission statement Zoe's Ark provided to Chadian authorities, which clearly limited its action to providing aid to refugees in local camps. "It says nothing about repatriation of children, which is what Children's Rescue stated as its goal from the outset."

However bad the allegations, this diplomat stresses too many questions remain to be answered before the innocence of the six aid workers and their backers should be doubted. The stakes in an unfair conviction would be far too high, he says: 20 years of hard labor for the Zoe's Ark members, and years of additional difficulty for other NGOs operating in the area.