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Charity workers sentenced in Chad case

/ Source: The Associated Press

A court sentenced six French charity workers to eight years in prison in France on Monday, after they were convicted in Chad of trying to kidnap 103 children they said were orphans from Darfur.

In October, Chadian authorities arrested members of the aid group Zoe's Ark as they sought to send 103 children on a plane to France. The group's members insisted they were driven by compassion to help orphans in Sudan's conflict-wracked Darfur region, which borders Chad.

But investigations showed most of the children had at least one parent or close adult relative.

The six were sentenced in the central African country in December to eight years of hard labor, then transferred to France under a 1976 judicial accord between the two countries. They were jailed soon after their arrival.

Because France does not have forced labor, the court in Creteil southeast of Paris was asked to adapt their sentences. On Monday, the court converted the sentence into eight years in prison.

Supporters of the workers protested loudly in court after the decision. One of the three defendants present at the ruling, Emilie Lelouch, gestured and shouted to her family through a glass partition before being led out of court.

Case was not retried
The Creteil court did not retry the case. It also ruled that the Chadian court's sentence was valid in France, saying there was no proof of a "flagrant denial of justice" as defined by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The lawyers for the workers said they would appeal and did not consider the Chadian trial fair.

Defense lawyer Gilbert Collard called on French President Nicolas Sarkozy to seek a pardon from his Chadian counterpart, Idriss Deby. He noted that Sarkozy had flown to Chad in November to bring home three French journalists and four Spanish flight crew members initially charged in the case.

"We are calling on the president of the Republic ... to rally now so that the people convicted today can obtain a pardon as quickly as possible," said Collard.

The group's transfer to France had sparked protests in Chad, a former French colony, with many Chadians decrying what they saw as special treatment for Europeans.

The case was an embarrassment for France, coming as the country was pushing to send a European Union force to Chad to protect refugees fleeing violence in Darfur.

European Union nations gave their final blessing Monday to send the 3,700-strong peacekeeping mission to Chad and the Central African Republic.

EU military organizers have struggled to find troops and military hardware like helicopters for the mission, with many member governments claiming they were too busy with military commitments elsewhere, notably Afghanistan and Kosovo.