French Aid Workers Sentenced

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Relatives of French charity Zoé's Ark comfort each other, January 28, 2008, at Créteil courthouse, Paris, after the sentencing.

A court near Paris has ruled that six French aid workers convicted in Chad and sentenced to an eight-year prison for attempted kidnapping will serve that full jail term in France — though with no hard labor, which under French law is banned. The ruling brings the bizarre, at times tawdry saga of humanitarian assistance group Zoé's Ark to its legal conclusion, but emotions still run high: as the judgment was read out, relatives and friends of the six shook the courtroom with cries of protest and claims of political manipulation.

Tasked only with rendering the Chadian punishment compatible with French law, the Créteil court in Paris pointed out in a statement that it wasn't mandated to reexamine the case evidence or the guilty verdict handed down in Chad's capital, N'Djamena. That controversial judgment, issued on December 26, convicted the six Zoé's Ark's workers of attempted kidnapping in their efforts to secretly fly 103 children they claimed were orphans from war-torn Darfur out of eastern Chad to France for urgent care. Later investigations concluded that virtually all the children were in fact relatively healthy Chadian nationals with at least one living parent, and elsewhere uncovered a range of troubling details surrounding Zoé's Ark and its mission.

All six members have consistently maintained their innocence, and claimed they'd become scapegoats of the Chadian government's attempts to take advantage of the humanitarian crisis created by the violence in Darfur. But despite a considerable public relations push by supporters to cast the aid workers as victims, French public opinion has failed to warm to their cause. Before and during their trial in Chad, certain members of the group righteously justified their at times extra-legal efforts to tend to the children as legitimate given the urgency of the situation. Since their December 28 return to France under Franco-Chadian judicial accords, several members of the operation have reportedly fallen out with their leaders of its illegal aspects. Lawyers and families of those support staffers had hoped the tribunal would consider evidence in their conviction of the subordinate roles they assumed, and lighten their sentences as accomplices rather — a distinction not made by the Chadian court.

French government officials insist that even before the group's arrest by Chadian police on October 25, they cautioned Zoé's Ark against pursuing certain of their more audacious humanitarian projects in Chad, particularly what appeared to be clandestine adoption arrangements with families back in France. Because of that, it came as little surprise to many observers earlier this month when a French investigating magistrate named several members in the group as defendants in his case for "complicity in the illegal residence of foreign minors in France," "illegally exercising the role as intermediary towards adoption" and "fraud." With any eventual convictions on those charges be pronounced by a French law based on violation of national laws, any prison sentences arising from them would be added to the eight year jail terms the Chad court handed down for kidnapping.

Given this run up to the tribunal's ruling on their sentence Monday, there was little reason for the Zoé's Ark members or their supporters to expect French judges to upend the rulings of the Chad court. Indeed, despite accusations by supporters and lawyers for Zoé's Ark workers that the Chadian trial had been unfair, the French tribunal ruled it had met the minimal European criteria requiring defense lawyers, debate of evidence and testimony, and recourse to appeal. Given that, the judges concluded an attempt to review the Chadian case would amount to "interference in the affairs of a sovereign state," and limited their work to adapting the sentence to French law. Detractors accuse the tribunal of not wanting to be seen as protecting French nationals from a punishment meted out by a former French colony, and they contend that the ruling is colored by concerns about next month's deployment of 3,500 French-led European peacekeeping troops to eastern Chad, a foreign military presence Chadian leaders resent.

Lawyers for the six convicted aid workers said they'd file for an appeal — but legal experts believe that given the narrow ambit left to the court under the judicial accords between France and Chad, they stand virtually no chance of receiving a more favorable ruling. In fact, French appeals courts are notorious for stiffening sentences in lower court rulings, meaning the Zoé's Ark crew could see they Chadian prison jolts lengthened — and then possibly compounded by eventual conviction in the case the French state brings against them.