French charity workers go on trial over Chad child kidnapping

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The six members of the Arche de Zoe (Zoe's Ark) charity face 20-year hard labour terms if found guilty

  December 19, 2007 - Six members of a French charity accused of
trying to kidnap 103 children in Chad go on trial on Friday in a new test of
France's relations with its former African colonies.
   The six members of the Arche de Zoe (Zoe's Ark) charity face 20-year hard
labour terms if found guilty and there have been a lot of calls for them to
serve any sentence in their home country.
   But the case has also sparked anger in Chad where France is soon to lead a
EU peacekeeping force near the border with Sudan's troubled Darfur region.
   Eric Breteau, head of Zoe's Ark, and five comrades, were detained in the
eastern town of Abeche on October 25 as they were about to put the children on
a leased Spanish plane bound for France.
   Breteau and his supporters insist that the aim of the operation was to
rescue orphans from Darfur. Seventeen Europeans, including the Spanish crew of
the plane, and journalists accompanying the mission, were detained in all.
   French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Chad and was able to negotiate the
release of most of them.
   The six charity workers are the only Europeans left in detention, which has
sparked protests in Chad of political interference. Three Chadians and a
Sudanese are also to go on trial.
   Breteau and his colleagues began a hunger strike on December 8, and his
wife has expressed concern for the health of the accused, who looked weak and
tired during a brief court appearance for jury selection this week.
   The French nationals face criminal allegations of child abduction and risk
terms of between five and 20 years hard labour if found guilty.
   Breteau's wife Agnes told French radio this week that "physically and
emotionally, they are in a critical state," and she hoped the six would be
able to cope during their trial.
   And they face a difficult case.
   Relief workers from international agencies have found that almost all of
the 103 children are Chadian villagers with at least one parent living.
   The defence lawyers say the six were fooled by local intermediaries who
organised the children. Agnes Breteau said she had "confidence" that the
French defence lawyers would prove that the six had simply "left to try and
save some children," but there was "no guarantee".
   French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Sunday that Paris "had not
abandoned the case, nor the people involved", even though "it was up to
Chadian justice to resolve it."
   A new row erupted this week when the Spanish Boeing 757 to be used in the
flight was impounded by Chadian prosecutors, who said it was important
   The aircraft operated by Barcelona-based charter airline Girjet, or Gestion
Aerea Ajecutiva, arrived in Ndjamena on Tuesday from Abeche, where it had been
on the runway since October 25. Girjet lawyers complained this was "piracy".
   Defence lawyers have sought to have the criminal charges downgraded to
misdemeanours so they could be dealt with in a lower court with lighter
sentences. But no change has been ordered.
   The selected jury consists of three professional magistrates -- a president
and two advisors -- and four jurors and two potential stand-ins randomly
chosen from a list of 20 citizens.

Francesco Fontemaggi

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