‘International law protected French aid workers’

”We shall argue for an acquittal. Evacuating children in danger is provided for under the Geneva Convention, and those who evacuate them can face no criminal liability,” said Celine Lorenzon. The defence team then began the trial by asking that the case be dismissed.

The six, who work for the French charity Zoe’s Ark, face 20 years in prison with hard labour if they are found guilty of trying to kidnap 103 African children last October.

The French say the children had been orphaned by the conflict in the neighbouring Sudanese region of Darfur, and that they had arranged for French families to care for them. But subsequent investigations revealed that most of the children were Chadians with living parents or adults they regarded as parents.

Gilbert Collard, another defence lawyer, said that the accused will argue ”they did not come here to do harm, but to apply the legal doctrine of saving lives at any price. They admit that they did not follow the usual methods of humanitarian aid.”

Collard insisted that the defence team had ”all the evidence to show that it was not kidnapping but a desire to save children in a humanitarian context”.

The aid workers have been on a hunger strike since earlier this month to draw attention to the case, saying they feel abandoned by the French government. Collard had said on Thursday his clients were ”very tired, very depressed, very discouraged. The hunger strike has made them very weak and the situation is really tragic.”

The parents of many of the children say that they were told their children would be going to school in Chad, and there was no mention of a trip to France — accusations that journalist Marie-Agnes Peleran, speaking to France-Inter in Paris on Friday, said were true.

Peleran, one of three journalists accompanying the mission, said it was ”never” said the children were going to be taken to France, because ”for security reasons, according to [the group’s leader] Eric Breteau, we couldn’t say. Being in the border region, there were Sudanese security agents around.”

Instead, she said, parents were told, the group was ”going to take care of [the children] for a certain period, give them an education, take them to Abeche, maybe later to Ndjamena”.

Other children said they were lured away from their families with sweets. The aid workers also reportedly applied fake blood and bandages to the children, although none of them had been wounded, in preparation for a planned flight to France.

Chadian police stopped their convoy of all-terrain vehicles on its way to the airport with the children on October 25, and the six have been jailed since then in a case that has drawn wide attention, sparked anti-French demonstrations here and created diplomatic tensions between Chad and France.

In Paris on Friday, Jean-Marie Bockel, a junior minister for relations with French-speaking nations, told France’s LCI television that officials ”at the highest levels” in France and Chad, including the presidents of the two countries, were discussing the case with the aim of bringing the six to France quickly following the trial.

A France-Chad agreement allows for citizens of one country convicted in the other to serve sentences at home. Chadian officials, however, have argued that the agreement only applies in cases where it is not clear where an offence was committed, so the Zoe’s Ark case does not fall under it.

Bockel said that while France was working extremely hard on behalf of its citizens, it was taking care not to create ”concerns and misunderstandings related to the question of [Chad’s] sovereignty, which could complicate matters”.

Three Chadians and one Sudanese refugee have also been charged with conspiracy. Some Chadians have expressed anger that the African prisoners may be judged by a harsher standard since they have no European government to intervene on their behalf.

Eleven other foreigners — three French journalists who had been reporting on the planned evacuation and seven Spanish flight crew members and a Belgian pilot hired to fly out the children — have been released and flown home. — Sapa-AP

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