French charity workers jailed in Chad on hunger strike

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A judicial source said that French charity workers jailed in Chad have begun a hunger strike

   N'DJAMENA, December 10, 2007 - Six French charity workers detained in Chad over efforts to fly 103 children to France began a hunger strike Saturday to protest what they call a "biased" probe into the incident, a judicial source said.
   "They have begun their hunger strike, but are continuing to drink water and
smoke," the source told AFP.
   "They are saying that they are determined to continue their strike until
they are freed because they say they have committed no crime."
   The six French nationals are incarcerated in the Chadian capital of
N'Djamena on charges of kidnapping and fraud. Five Chadian officials and a
Sudanese refugee are also detained for complicity.
   The investigating judge concluded his probe into the incident Tuesday and
received the prosecutor's recommendations Thursday. He is expected to issue an edict next week on whether the case will be tried and, if so, whether it will be heard in a court dealing with crimes or misdemeanors.
   But the five charity workers claim the judge is biased. One of them,
Philippe van Winkelberg, wrote a letter to that effect, claiming "proof" of
the defendants' innocence was not taken into account.
   In France Gilbert Collard, lawyer for the detained members of the Zoe's Ark
charity, said the six felt forsaken by the French government.
   "The decision to launch a hunger strike is the result of a situation of
diplomatic and political abandonment in which our compatriots are left," he
said Saturday, adding he personally believed French President Nicolas Sarkozy would ultimately intervene on their behalf.
   Sarkozy flew to Chad last month to bring home other Europeans involved in
the botched flight.
   In October, Chadian authorities halted a controversial operation in the
eastern city of Abeche, as charity members tried to board more than 100
African children on a France-bound plane.
   Zoe's Ark has said that it thought the children were orphans from Darfur,
the neighbouring Sudanese region in the throes of civil war.
   But international humanitarian organisations claim almost all the children
are from Chadian villages in the border area, and have at least one parent or
adult guardian.
   Also charged initially were three French journalists, seven Spanish air
crew members chartered by Zoe's Ark to take the children to France, and a
Belgian pilot who transported some of the children from Adre, near the
Sudanese border, to Abeche.
   They have since been released and repatriated, although the charges still
hold in Chad.
   Those charged could incur sentences of between five to 20 years of forced
labour in Chad.

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