French aid workers were 'saving lives,' not kidnapping: lawyer

The six French aid workers facing kidnapping charges in Chad were trying to save children thought to be orphans, their lawyers said Friday at the start of their trial.

The trial of six French aid workers facing kidnapping charges opened in N'djamena, Chad, on Friday, and their lawyers said the group was trying to save children they believed to be Darfur orphans so they should be protected from charges under international law.

Workers with French charity Zoe's Ark went on trial Friday on charges of trying to kidnap 103 children in Chad. ((Pascak Guyot/AFP/Getty Images))

The defence team began the trial by asking the court to dismiss the case.

"Evacuating children in danger is provided for under the Geneva Convention, and those who evacuate them can face no criminal liability," lawyer Céline Lorenzon said before the proceedings began.

The six, who work for the French charity Zoé'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 defense lawyer, said the accused will argue that "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."

Children allegedly lured away with sweets

Chadian police stopped the humanitarian group's convoy of all-terrain vehicles as it travelled to the airport with the children on Oct. 25, and the six aid workers have been jailed ever since. The case that has drawn wide attention, sparked anti-French demonstrations in Chad, and created diplomatic tensions between Chad and France.

Some 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.

The parents of many of the children say that they were told their children would be going to school in Chad. Journalist Marie-Agnès Peleran, one of three reporters who was travelling with the aid workers, told French media on Friday that the parents are telling the truth.

Peleran said it was "never" said the children were going to be taken to France. Peleran said parents were instead told the group was going to take care of the children for a period, give them an education, take them to the Chad community of Abeche, and then possibly to N'djamena.

Plans kept secret for 'security reasons'

Eric Breteau, the humanitarian group's leader, said they didn't announce their plans "for security reasons." He said that they were in a border region and "there were Sudanese security agents around."

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

In Paris Friday, French official Jean-Marie Bockel 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 Zoé'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— the 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.