- Title: VARIOUS: France appeals for release of aid workers on trial in Chad
- Date: 22nd December 2007
- Summary: (EU) ABECHE, CHAD (OCTOBER 26, 2007) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF DOZENS OF CHILDREN SITTING ON THE GROUND IN AN ORPHANAGE
- Reuters ID: LVA7KIWZMTN8LLI3EIO9U8YASFW9
- Duration: 00:00:13
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- Story Text: French aid workers leave court in N'Jamena after first day of their trial.
Back in France, the wife of one of the accused pleads for his release, while authorities say the aid workers could serve their sentence in France under international law.
The leader of a French aid group accused of trying to kidnap 103 African children in Chad, told a N'Djamena court on Friday (December 21) his actions had been a legitimate humanitarian mission to save war orphans from Darfur.
Eric Breteau said French and Chadian authorities had been aware of the operation attempted by his group, Zoe's Ark, to try and save child victims of the conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region bordering Chad.
Breteau and five other members of the Zoe's Ark group are accused of abduction and fraud.
"I contest the charges against us," Breteau said on the opening day of the trial.
Wearing a shirt carrying the name of Children Rescue, under which Zoe's Ark operated in Chad, he looked thin as he and the other accused have been on hunger strike for over a week, refusing food but drinking water.
They were arrested in late October as they tried to fly the children, aged 1-10, out of eastern Chad to Europe. Chadian authorities said they attempted this without permission.
Back in France, relatives are anxiously following the trial. Christine Peligat, wife of Alain Peligat, said she hoped
"What I hope from this trial in Chad is that it will give them a chance to tell their side of the story, answer all sorts of questions, about what's been said about them. It's true that we hope they will be cleared because, as I said earlier,whether it is for five of 20 years, a sentence remains a sentence," Peligat said.
She defended Zoe's Ark's right to try and help victims of the conflict in Darfur.
"It's a country at war. It's been going on for four years now. The United Nations has passed a huge number of resolutions, but at the end of the day, the situation hasn't changed, people are still dying, children are dying there, and nothing is being done. There comes a point when we have to say "stop," that's all. Now, to say that we went there as colonisers, I don't agree."
If convicted, the six could face forced labour sentences of between five to 20 years. But many believe they will be allowed to serve jail terms in France under bilateral accords, or benefit from a pardon from Chadian President Idriss Deby.
He said international rights conventions sanctioned efforts to save war victims, such as children caught up in Darfur's conflict that has killed around 200,000 people in the Sudanese region since 2003.
The Zoe's Ark case has embarrassed France, which supports Deby's rule in landlocked Chad. It has troops stationed in its former colony and is providing the bulk of a European Union peacekeeping force to be deployed in east Chad in January.
Asked by the judge why some of the children were found to be Chadian not Darfuri, and not orphans, Breteau said local intermediaries employed by Zoe's Ark had assured them the children had no living parents and came from Darfur.
Three Chadians and a Sudanese national are being tried along with the French as accomplices.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken a personal interest in the case and has said he would prefer the French to be tried in France. He discussed the case with Deby at a Europe-Africa summit in Lisbon earlier this month.
Dozens of armed riot police were on standby outside the courtroom in the dusty Chadian capital, where angry protests have occurred against the six and against what many Chadians see as French interference in the case.
A defence lawyer for the six, Gilbert Collard, told reporters that politics was "omnipresent" in the case.
Chadian and U.N. officials said inquiries showed most of the 103 children in the case had at least one living parent and came from villages on the Chad-Sudan border.
The parents of several children said they had been duped by the Zoe's Ark workers into giving up their infants with the promise of schooling for them in east Chad -- but that there had never been any mention of taking them away to France.
The trial continues on Saturday (December 22).
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