Zoe's Ark sentences shock France

French aid workers were sentenced to eight years hard labor and $9 million Wednesday after being convicted for kidnapping children in the African nation of Chad.

– The news that six French amateur humanitarians convicted of attempting to kidnap 103 children from the African nation of Chad were sentenced to eight years hard labor and $9 million has been received in France with shock mixed with a realism that the group would be punished.

The main question now is whether Chad will extradite the six members of the Zoe's Ark charity back to France, as French authorities have requested.

The case captured world attention when Chadian police arrested 12 Europeans this fall near a local Chad airport – as they prepared to fly the children, supposedly Sudanese orphans from Darfur, to Europe.

Many children later turned out to have parents and to be from villages in neighboring Chad – suggesting the French volunteers may have been duped by local middlemen.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the case played powerfully as an instance of white colonial arrogance; in France, it was seen as a misguided effort to save lives; and among humanitarian groups it has been seen as the kind of mission that puts experienced, professional aid workers at risk.

In Paris, the verdict in Chad after a four-day trial brought condemnation of the Chadian judicial system, and charges of a show trial, by lawyers, family members, and some ordinary French.

"It's a scandalous judicial error," said one of the lawyers for Zoe's Ark, Gilbert Collard, adding that the trial was conducted as a "pretext" by Chadian authorities to suggest that "justice exists in Chad when it doesn't."

"I think Zoe's Ark deserved some punishment, but eight years hard labor is too much," says Tafiq, a Frenchman of Moroccan extraction who works in a Paris cafe. "Nine million dollars and hard labor? That would never happen here."

French bloggers, however, were critical and caustic of the group, many calling them "amateurs."

The group may be extradited to France

Under a 1976 extradition treaty between Chad and France, the six may be extradited to serve their sentence in France, though "hard labor" has been banned in French prisons. A Thursday editorial in the daily Libération suggested the harsh sentence for the Ark members sets up the possibility of extradition, since it answers public outcry in Chad over a case presented luridly in local media as one of former colonialists bent on exploiting African peoples. Before the trial, Chadian President Idriss Deby charged Zoe's Ark with crimes ranging from pedophilia to organ trafficking.

Wednesday's verdict arrived the same day as a new UN report describing higher severe child malnutrition rates in Darfur, despite the presence of some 12,000 aid workers and nearly a billion dollars in assistance. "Acute malnutrition" has risen from 12.9 to 16.1 percent of Darfur children, according to the report.

Eric Breteau, founder of Zoe's Ark, told the court in Chad before his sentence: "I maintain what I've said since the start of this affair – our intention was to fetch orphans from Darfur."

French lawyers complained Thursday to media here that the Chadian trial ignored differing levels of culpability among French defendants, and handed the same sentence to Mr. Breteau as to rank-and-file volunteers.

A misguided effort to save lives?

Breteau, a volunteer fireman from a Paris suburb, got involved in the Darfur cause after attending a symposium on Sudan last year. He formed the Zoe's Ark group shortly after and vowed last spring to save 10,000 children from starving in the war-ravaged area of Sudan.

After Zoe's Ark arrived on the Chadian border, group members say they found it difficult to make good on their promise in a bewildering new atmosphere and began to rely on various proxy agents to find orphans.

In late October Chadian authorities arrested the group on the way to the airport, along with three French journalists, and the pilots and stewardesses of a hired Spanish plane.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy immediately flew to Chad, recovered the journalists and the airplane staff, and promised to bring home the rest of the French members of Zoe's Ark "no matter what they did." At the same time, French human rights minister Rama Yade pointed out that the French volunteers had made mistakes and violated local laws.

While most French expect the six to be extradited, the issue remains a sensitive one, and the French palace has not commented on the verdict.

However, Jean-Louis Bianco, a socialist member of the French Assembly from Provence, home of the Zoe's Ark doctor, Philippe Van Winkelberg, told French media yesterday, "We need to understand the Chadians…. We [the French] will have to pay something for the extradition…. I hope the money will be used to develop Chad."

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