For the six French aid workers accused in October of trying to smuggle 103 children out of Chad, the question was never whether they'd be found guilty, but when. Now that a Chadian court has handed down their conviction, the transfer of the six back to France to serve their sentences appears to be just a matter of days or weeks. Mending the damaged relations between France and Chad, however, could take far longer.
A criminal court in the Chadian capital of N'Djamena deliberated for only a few hours Monday evening before finding the six employees of Zoé's Ark, a France-based children's aid group, guilty of attempted kidnapping. All six were sentenced to eight years of hard labor. The verdict came two months after Chadian police arrested a total of 17 people working with Zoé's Ark in the eastern town of Abéché as they prepared an unauthorized airlift of 103 children to France, where they were to receive medical care and be placed in foster homes. Zoé's Ark officials contended that their furtive methods were necessary to get urgent aid to the children, who they claimed were orphans from nearby Darfur. But investigators soon found that most of the children were in stable condition and that virtually all of them were Chadian nationals with at least one living parent. Amidst vivid public anger in Chad, French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to N'Djamena in November to secure the release of seven Europeans detained as accomplices in the case and vowed to eventually bring the remainder home "no matter what they may have done."
With Monday's conviction, it's now time for Sarkozy to make good on that pledge. Judicial accords between France and Chad make transferrals of convicts virtually mandatory once prisoners have requested return to their home nations. The six Zoé's Ark workers made such a petition just hours after their trial closed, leading some legal experts to anticipate their delivery to French authorities within days. Recent cases of convicts returned to serve sentences delivered by foreign courts suggest that Zoé's Ark staffers would probably serve only about half of their sentences. They would also be spared hard labor, which is an illegal condition of imprisonment in France.
But the return of the six to France won't produce general relief, much less joy. Families and supporters of the Zoé's Ark convicts are still railing at what they call a Chadian show-trial, and accuse Paris of failing to provide sufficient assistance and protection to what they say are blameless humanitarian officials. They contend the staffers were trapped in the shifting political sands surrounding the Darfur crisis particularly the deployment of French-led peacekeeping forces to the Chad-Sudan border region, a move that Chadian authorities resent. Public opinion in Chad, on the other hand, has broadly accused the court of letting a cabal of child traffickers working under humanitarian cover off lightly. Some local commentators fear the transfer of Zoé's Ark staffers back to France could set off another round of anti-French and anti-government rioting such as that witnessed ahead of the trial. At those riots, Chadians vented anger at white, European suspects receiving deferential treatment ordinary Chadians never would.
Sentiment in France generally lies somewhere between those two extremes. Zoé's Ark staff were condemned at first as buffoons who sought to play God by scorning international law. But more recently French public opinion softened as family members mounted an energetic communications offensive arguing the suspects' innocence. Television scenes of Chadian riot police keeping furious crowds from the accused, meanwhile, have also raised some French fears over their safety a concern Chadians have denounced as neo-colonial. Elsewhere, some onlookers including French officials working for the return of the six to France remain troubled by the lack of remorse or real avowal of wrongdoing by Zoé's Ark leaders, who have said their only error was in being misled by a local contact who swore the 103 children were Darfur orphans.