The six members of French charity Zoe's Ark, convicted for attempting to kidnap 103 African children, were released from prison on Monday following a pardon by Chadian President Idriss Deby. FRANCE 24's Paul Barber reports.
Hours after Chadian President Idriss Deby pardoned six French aid workers for attempting to kidnap 103 African children, the founder of the French charity Zoe's Ark was released from prison on Monday.
Eric Breteau, the leader of Zoe’s Ark, and his companion Emilie Lelouch were released from a prison in Fresnes, outside Paris, where they were serving an eight-year sentence.
Reporting from outside the prison, FRANCE 24’s Paul Barber said there remained “a certain amount of mystery” surrounding Breteau’s release.
“Soon after we heard of the presidential pardon, we heard a release was imminent,” said Barber. “There was a media scrum outside the prison gates and several cars did pass the press corps. One can only assume that one of those cars was carrying Eric Breteau.”
The founder of Zoe’s Ark was the most high profile of the six French citizens convicted of attempting to kidnap 103 African children in Chad, in a case that threatened to strain relations between France and its former colony.
Breteau’s release came shortly after that of another Zoe’s Ark member, Dominique Aubry, who was in prison in the northern French city of Caen. The charity's logistics chief Alain Peligat, team doctor Philippe Van Winkelberg and nurse Nadia Merimi were also released from other jails around the country.
The aid workers 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.
‘Absolutely not a surprise’
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.”
The members of Zoe’s Ark had 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, with 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, Lelouch, Van Winkelberg and Péligat 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.
In a phone interview with FRANCE 24, Gilbert Collard, one of the lawyers for Zoe’s Ark, 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 : 2008-04-01