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Deby pardons Zoe's Ark charity members

Latest update : 2008-03-31

Chadian President Idriss Deby on Monday granted a presidential pardon to six French aid workers who were sentenced to eight years in prison for attempting to kidnap 103 children and fly them to Europe. Watch France 24's special report.

Chadian President Idriss Deby granted a presidential pardon Monday to six French aid workers convicted by a Chadian court for attempting to kidnap 103 African children and fly them to Europe.

The aid workers, from the French charity, Zoe's Ark, were sentenced to eight years’ hard labour by a Chadian court last December after they were convicted of trying to fly the children out of Chad without permission.

"A presidential pardon has been granted to the six French members of Zoe's Ark," read a decree signed by Deby and released in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena on Monday. Dominique Aubry,  left a northern France prison on Monday night. He told reporters outside the prison in the city of Caen that he will "try to be cleared one day." In addition, he criticised the way some media covered the events. The rest of the workers are expected to be released soon.

Reacting to the news, FRANCE 24’s Virginie Herz, who has covered the story from Chad, said the pardon was “absolutely not a surprise, particularly once the judiciary gave the green light on Friday.”

Last week, Chad's Higher Judicial Council, which advises Deby on legal matters, issued a formal go-ahead to grant a presidential pardon to the French charity workers.

According to Herz, the pardon is widely viewed as payback for France’s diplomatic and military support for Deby during a rebel assault on N'Djamena in early February.

“Many political observers in Chad, but also people on the street, see the presidential pardon given by Deby as a quid pro quo for the help given to the Chadian government by (French) President (Nicolas) Sarkozy during the rebel attack on N’Djamena,” said Herz.

In an interview with FRANCE 24 on March 7, Deby had indicated that he was willing to consider a French demand for a presidential pardon.  “On the principle [of a pardon], I completely agree, I have accepted it,” he told FRANCE 24’s “The Talk of Paris”. “There is a procedure to follow, and the procedure is under way.”

Arrested in Chad, sentenced in France

The members of Zoe’s Ark has sought to fly the children to France for adoption after claiming they were orphans or refugees from the Sudanese region of Darfur, which borders eastern Chad.

But international aid staff later found almost all the children to be from Chad and have at least one living parent. Family members told international aid staffers they had been persuaded to give up their offspring in exchange for promises of a better education.

During their trial in Chad last year, the five members of Zoe’s Ark, including the charity’s founder Eric Breteau, had protested their innocence, saying they were misled by middlemen into believing the children were orphans from Darfur.

The prisoners were jailed in Chad but were later transferred to France, under an agreement that they would serve out their Chadian sentence in French prisons.

Despite the pardon, the six are still under investigation in France for illegal activities connected to adoption, aiding the unlawful stay of foreign minors, as well as fraud. Four of the six - Breteau, his companion Emilie Lelouch, the team's doctor, Philippe van Winkelberg and Alain Péligat, the logistics coordinator - have already been charged.

Compensation ‘no longer an issue’

During the trial, the Chadian justice system ordered that the families of the children be given 4 billion CFA (African francs – equivalent to 6 million euros) in compensation.

But in his March 7 interview with “The Talk of Paris,” Deby maintained that a presidential pardon was not related to resolution of the compensation issue. “They are not linked,” he said, though he added that the compensation issue would have to be resolved before considering freedom for the six group members. “Who is going to pay this compensation? Will it be the French government or members of Zoe’s Ark?” he said.

The French government however has sought to distance itself from the compensation issue, announcing that it would not pay the amount in damages.

But for Gilbert Collard, one of the lawyers for Zoe’s Ark, the compensation was “no longer an issue.” In a phone interview with FRANCE 24, Collard welcomed Monday’s presidential pardon. “At the end of the day, they will face these charges as free citizens. It will be easier to mount a defense,” he said.

Date created : 2008-03-31