Questions remain after release of French charity workers

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Two days after six French charity workers were pardoned by Chad's president and freed from jail in France, questions lingered.

   PARIS, April 2, 2008  - Two days after six French charity workers were
pardoned by Chad's president and freed from jail in France, questions lingered
Wednesday -- along with fears their case had cast a cloud over the aid
   Members of the charity Zoe's Ark were released late Monday from French
prisons where they had been serving eight-year terms for trying to fly out 103
African children from Chad.
   The release came after Chadian President Idriss Deby pardoned them earlier
in the day in decrees released in N'djamena. The six had originally been
sentenced to eight years of hard labor in Chad, which was later translated
into prison terms on their return to France earlier this year.
   On Tuesday, several Zoe's Ark members expressed "regret" over the incidents
in Chad but continued to maintain their innocence.
   "I regret everything that has happened and I also regret that this mission
was interpreted as a kidnapping," said the charity's doctor, Philippe van
   Another member, Alain Peligat, expressed sorrow the group had been unable
to fly the children back to France as planned.
   Chad maintained the group was trying to kidnap the children while Zoe's Ark
members argued they were trying to help orphans from Darfur, Sudan, just
across Chad's border. But inquiries later by international experts found the
children were not Sudanese and most had relatives.
   As the workers savour their new-found freedom, the question of who -- if
anyone -- will bankroll some 6.3 million euros (9.8 million dollars) in
damages and interest a Chadian court ordered the charity to pay remains
   N'djamena insists the presidential pardon does not include the payment,
while the Union of Magistrates of Chad (SMT) said Tuesday that since France
had freed them, Paris should foot the bill.
   "Now that a pardon has been obtained, the French state remains the
guarantor and must substitute itself for the pardoned convicts to pay damages
and interest to the victims," an SMT spokesman told AFP in N'djamena.
   The union is part of the Superior Council of the Magistrature, which last
week opened the way for the pardon by giving its approval, but the SMT
spokesman added that "it regrets that President Idriss Deby opted for a simple
   The French government says it will not pick up the tab.
   "It is out of the question that French taxpayers pay six million euros for
mistakes France has not made," Prime Minister Francois Fillon told French
radio Tuesday.
   For their part, the charity workers appear to have modest means, making it
difficult for them to pay fines that amount to a million euros apiece.
   Whether the six will face additional judicial sanctions is another unknown.
   Four of those released still face charges in France -- including the
"illegal exercise of an intermediary activity aimed at adoption" and fraud --
relating to the Chadian case.
   One charge alone -- helping minors obtain illegal residency in France --
carries a two-year prison term and a 750,000 fine.
   Lawyers for the workers argue they are innocent and that the charges be
   Lawyers for several of the six also said they would drop a previous appeal
against the judgement by a Paris area tribunal that converted their Chadian
sentence into prison terms in France.
   Meanwhile, some members of the international aid community fear the Zoe's
Ark case may have smeared their reputation as well.
   "They have injured all the NGOs (nongovernmental organisations)," said
Michel Brugiere, head of the French relief group Medecins du Monde (Doctors of
the World) who also serves as vice-president for an umbrella group of 140
   Zoe's Ark has never been part of the group, known as Coordination Sud.
   Media coverage of their liberation from prison has cast the six as
"heroes," Brugiere told AFP, "when they have really behaved badly on the
humanitarian level."


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