French aid workers in Chad adoption scandal freed from jail

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Six French aid workers pardoned by Chad's president were freed from jail in France.

   PARIS, April 1, 2008 - Eric Breteau, president of the charity Zoe's Ark, left prison in Fresnes, near Paris, along with his partner Emilie Lelouch.
   Three others -- volunteer firefighter Dominique Aubry, Zoe's Ark logistics
chief Alain Peligat, team doctor Philippe Van Winkelberg and nurse Nadia
Merimi -- were released from other jails around the country after Chad's
President Idriss Deby Itno pardoned them in decrees released in N'Djamena.
   The charity had sought to fly 103 children to France for adoption after
claiming they were orphans or refugees from Sudan's war-wracked Darfur region.
   The six were detained on October 25 as they were about to put the children
on a French-bound flight from the main eastern Chad town of Abeche, across the border from Darfur.
   International aid staff later found almost all the children to be Chadian,
not war refugees, and to have at least one living parent.
   The six were sentenced on December 26 to eight years hard labour, before
being sent to serve their sentences in French jails.
   A second decree issued by Deby on Monday pardoned local intermediary
Mahamat Dagot, a community chief from the Chadian town of Tine, near the
Sudanese border.
   Dagot had been convicted last year of "complicity in the attempted kidnap
of children" and sentenced to four years of hard labour.
   Sudanese refugee Souleimane Ibrahim Adam -- who worked with Zoe's Ark as an intermediary and who like Dagot faced four years in prison with hard labour -- had not received a pardon because he had not yet asked for one, Chadian Justice Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke told AFP.
   The Zoe's Ark case raised tensions between France and Chad, a former French colony, as Paris prepared to spearhead a 3,700-strong EU peacekeeping force in eastern Chad to protect refugee camps in the region bordering Darfur.
   A French court in January modified the sentences and the six were
repatriated in accordance with a bilateral agreement once the Chadian courts
agreed. As hard labour does not exist in France, they were only jailed.
   After months in an orphanage, the first wave of children caught up in the
adoption scandal returned home earlier this month to their tearful parents,
accompanied by Chadian and United Nations officials.
   Wrangling is ongoing over the damages and interest of 6.3 million euros
(9.8 million dollars) the Chadian court ordered Zoe's Ark to pay.
   Four of those released still face charges in France relating to the case,
and the Chadian government said Monday's pardon does not affect the payments.
   The French government, which supported Deby when rebels attacked the
Chadian capital in February, welcomed news that a presidential pardon was on
the cards, but refused to pay the money owed to the families.
   "It is not for the government to pay, but at the same time, a solution must
be found," Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said at the time.
   Seven Spanish flight crew, three French journalists and a Belgian arrested
along with the six French charity workers were freed last year and allowed to
return to Europe.
   Some of the six were met by friends and reporters outside their jails on
Monday. A source close to Merimi, reporting her release, said she was
hospitalised in a state of exhaustion.
   Van Winkelberg, emerging from prison in the southern town of Draguignon
Monday, said he was "relieved."
   Peligat told reporters after coming out of prison that he had been in Chad
"to save lives and not to steal children."
   Breteau and Lelouch's lawyer Gilbert Collard said they would now "make
their truth be heard" about the case.


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