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Adoption Scammers Sentenced

December 27, 2007 permalink

In October a charity called Zoé’s Ark tried to fly 103 children out of Chad to France for adoption. They represented the children as injured orphans from Darfur (Sudan). The injuries were fake, the children were Chadian, not Sudanese, and they had been under the care of their families. Today a Chadian court sentenced the schemers to eight years. Now if we could get children's aid workers before a Chadian judge ...



French Aid Workers Get 8 Years Hard Labor

DAKAR, Senegal — Six French aid workers were found guilty on Wednesday by a court in Chad and sentenced to eight years of hard labor for trying to take to Europe 103 children who they claimed were orphans of the conflict in Darfur.

Palace of  Justice in Chad
Luc Gnago/Reuters
Police at the Palace of Justice in Chad, where six French citizens were convicted Wednesday of trying to kidnap 103 children.
Éric Breteau
Luc Gnago/Reuters
Éric Breteau, leader of the group that was found guilty.

Display images for more detail

The verdict came after four days of closely watched testimony in Chad’s capital, Ndjamena. The case enraged many Chadians and embarrassed France just as a European peacekeeping force made up largely of French troops was to begin deployment in the region. The episode brought condemnation across Africa.

Prosecutors portrayed the aid workers as remorseless kidnappers bent on exploiting Chad’s children. But the workers claimed they were humanitarians acting within the confines of international law, trying to save children from imminent harm.

Diplomats and analysts widely expect that the French workers will be allowed to return to France. Though French officials called the verdict a sovereign decision, they said they would ask Chad to allow the workers to serve their sentences in France, news agencies reported.

The workers claimed they had been rescuing child refugees from parched, war-torn Darfur, in western Sudan, but it turned out the children were for the most part neither Sudanese nor orphans.

This year the aid group, Zoé’s Ark, posted an emotional appeal on its Web site claiming that a child dies in Darfur every five minutes and calling upon families in Europe to help the organization bring the children to Europe for temporary refuge. The group said it planned to rescue 10,000 orphans. Many donated money to help cover the costs of chartered planes.

In October, Chadian officials stopped workers from the group as they hustled dozens of children, some of them in bandages and attached to intravenous drips, onto a plane in eastern Chad. The aid workers were charged with attempted kidnapping.

The bandages and bloodstains turned out to be a ruse. The group’s supporters have argued that local helpers misled the workers about the children’s status, but video images released by a journalist who had traveled with the aid workers showed them putting the fake bandages on the children.

The children were turned over to the Red Cross and found to be in relatively good health. Interviews with those old enough to speak showed that virtually all of them were Chadian, not Sudanese, and had been living with adult relatives they considered to be their parents.

The case touched off anti-French riots in Chad, a former French colony with close ties to France. In street demonstrations, Chadians demanded the death penalty.

French troops occupy two bases in Chad, and French troops are expected to make up a large portion of a European Union peacekeeping force aimed at stabilizing Chad and the Central African Republic, which have been destabilized by the conflict in Darfur and by rebellions of their own.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France flew to Chad to try to defuse tensions, and eventually the aid workers were allowed to leave on condition they returned for the trial.

Source: New York Times

Addendum: Another article gives more details, allowing for a comparison between children's aid and the French kidnappers.

Local snitches assist in finding families with children. Initial contact with the families is achieved through misrepresentation, in Africa by promising to build a school, in Canada by posing as helpers.

The kidnappers falsely claimed their African finds were orphans. In Canada, the same effect is achieved by getting a judge to declare them crown wards, turning them into paper orphans.

Mr Breteau claimed to act from purely charitable motives, overlooking the Frenchmen back home who had already paid for adoptive children. Again, just like Canada, where at least two different money streams fund the adoption industry, appropriations and fees from prospective adopters.

News of the mass kidnapping spread panic through Chad. A similar kind of panic exists in the west, though limited to parents apprised of the true power of child protectors.

One real difference is the fake medical treatments for the children to fool airport authorities into letting them out of the country. In Canada, fooling the authorities is unnecessary.

Unlike most western countries, the courts in Chad represented the parents, and treated the kidnappers harshly. Until there is a change in political mood, the courts in the US and Canada will continue to represent the interests of the child snatchers, protecting them from punishment.

Chad, a former colony, is a French client state, and the French government arranged for the transfer of the convicted kidnappers to France on December 28, two days after their sentencing. France may yet reduce their punishment.



Chad jails French volunteers for eight years

PARIS — A court in Chad yesterday convicted six French volunteer charity workers of attempting to kidnap 103 African children and fly them to France without their families' consent.

The four men and two women were sentenced to eight years hard labour by a judge in N'Djamena. They were also ordered to pay $8.9-million in damages to the families of the children they tried to take to France.

One of the six, nurse Nadia Merimi, was in tears and had to be comforted by her lawyer. Another, former soldier Alain Peligat, gave the charity's impassive leader Eric Breteau a brief hug of solidarity.

The aborted airlift has embarrassed France and exasperated legitimate aid organizations working in Chad. The defendants were members of an amateur aid group called Zoe's Ark. They said they believed they were rescuing orphans from “sure death” in Darfur, in neighbouring Sudan. But most of the children, ranging in age from toddlers to 10 years old, turned out to be neither orphans nor from Darfur.

Instead, they had been rounded up from villages in neighbouring Chad. Several of their fathers testified at trial that they had handed over their children because “the white people” from France had promised to build a school nearby and educate them.

The Zoe's Ark members, admitting they knew neither the region nor its culture, said they relied on local intermediaries to search out and bring them orphans to airlift out of the country. Two of the local men they hired, one Sudanese and one from Chad, were also convicted as accomplices. They received lighter sentences of four years in prison.

Just before the end of the trial, Mr. Breteau, who was also convicted of using forged papers, apologized to any Chadian parents who had been separated from their children.

But he again insisted that he and his colleagues had acted in good faith when they tried to fly the children from eastern Chad, near the border with Sudan's conflict-ridden Darfur region, to France.

“If they are Sudanese … we have deprived them of a better future; if they are Chadians and we were lied to, if we separated them from their families, we are really terribly sorry, for we never wanted to separate families.”

The case of the snatched children has complicated France's already delicate relations in Central Africa, where it has a leading role in the planned United Nations-African Union mission for Darfur. The French are seen as crucial to securing the co-operation of Chad, which is to be the staging ground for a massive international peacekeeping mission set to deploy next month in Darfur.

Since the affair broke in late October there has been more than one anti-French protest in the streets of N'Djamena. (Chad, a landlocked Central African country of 10 million people, won independence from France in 1960.) France has not defended the actions of Zoe's Ark, but has requested that the self-proclaimed Good Samaritans be sent home, presumably to serve out at least part of their jail terms.

Chad has done little to stop the popular anger whipped up against the Zoe's Ark operation. UN and private aid workers in the area have said that the French group's actions sparked rumours that Western “child stealers” were at large, panicking Darfur refugees.

Mr. Breteau has insisted he intended only to ask for political asylum status for the children and did not suggest to his supporters they could adopt them. At one point during his detention in Chad, he described himself as the only person in the world trying to do something concrete for Darfur victims.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to handle the controversy with a combination of behind-the-scenes diplomacy and grand public gestures. He has described the Zoe's Ark operation as “illegal” and “unacceptable.” Foreign Ministry officials said they had repeatedly warned the charity against attempting any sort of private rescue scheme.

But after the group was arrested in late October as they tried to take the children out of Chad in a rented airplane, Mr. Sarkozy intervened personally to secure the release of several journalists and airline crew members who were with the Zoe's Ark group.

He pledged to bring home those remaining in Chad, “no matter what they have done,” and proposed that they be tried in France. Chad's Interior Minister Ahmat Mahamat Bachir briskly rejected the suggestion, calling it an insult. “These bandits should be tried and convicted here,” he said, adding, “Let them get a taste of our prisons.”

Despite the angry words, the French charity workers were apparently treated well. When one of the accused women fell ill during the trial, she was taken to a French military hospital, not a local one, for treatment. The group was held in a low-security detention centre that is one of the newest prisons in Chad. Their fellow detainees were described as people caught up in clan disputes who considered it safer to live in prison than at home.

But French Foreign Ministry officials have apparently been negotiating for some time to bring the Zoe's Ark defendants back to France, taking advantage of a 1976 agreement with Chad that provides for extradition of convicted criminals to their home country to serve out their prison sentences.

A Socialist deputy suggested the price to be paid for the return of the charity workers could be high.

“It's clear that he is going to have to pay a lot of money, to the families [in Chad] as well as to the Chad government,” said Jean-Louis Bianco, one of the leading opposition figures in the National Assembly. “But if this money is used for the development of Chad, why not?”

A quick transfer of the convicted charity workers to France is likely, according to Antoine Glaser, editor of Letter from the Continent, a magazine specializing in Africa. Chad's President Idriss Déby wants French military support to fight the insurgents and Mr. Sarkozy wants to make sure Chad does not create roadblocks for the Darfur peacekeeping force.

“There is a real deal between the two men that goes beyond the Zoe's Ark affair,” Mr. Glaser told the newspaper La Croix. “Just like in the good old days, everything will be worked out between France and Chad without bothering with the sovereignty or judicial process of either country,” he added.

Special to The Globe and Mail, with a report from Agence France-Presse

Source: Globe and Mail

Addendum: Five years later a French court sentences six of the kidnappers.



Two French charity workers jailed in 'false orphans' case

Eric Breteau and Emilie Lelouch
File photo taken in Chad in 2007 of, from right to left, Eric Breteau and Emilie Lelouch Eric Breteau and Emilie Lelouch, seen here in 2007, had refused to attend the trial in France

Two French charity workers have been sentenced to two years in prison for illegally trying to fly 103 African children from Chad to France in 2007.

Eric Breteau, who founded Zoe's Ark, and his partner Emilie Lelouch had been tried in absentia but appeared in the Paris court for Tuesday's verdict.

Four other members of the group were given suspended sentences of between six months and a year.

Zoe's Ark received a 100,000 euro (£86,000) fine and has been dissolved.

The children were said to have been orphans from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region, but turned out to be mainly from Chad and with families of their own.

In a case that shocked France, the defendants were arrested in Chad as they tried to load the children on to a plane bound for France in 2007.

They were sentenced later that year to eight years' hard labour by a court in the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, but repatriated to France after receiving a pardon from Chad's president in March 2008.

'Any price'

The six defendants were charged, in France, with acting illegally as an adoption intermediary, facilitating illegal entry into France, and fraud in regard to 358 families who had expected to adopt children.

Marie-Agnes Peleran, Alain Peligat, Philippe van Winkelberg, Christophe Letien
An artist's sketch shows (from left) defendants Marie-Agnes Peleran, Alain Peligat , Philippe van Winkelberg and Christophe Letien in court in Paris, 3 December Four of the six defendants turned up for the trial in Paris

Mr Breteau and Ms Lelouch, who had been living in South Africa, refused to attend the start of the trial in early December, reportedly saying they had "no wish to give an account of themselves".

But they appeared in court on Tuesday to hear the judge rule that they should face a two-year prison sentence, a fine of 50,000 euros each and a ban on working with minors. Their lawyer said they would appeal.

The pair "could not have been unaware of the illegality of their project," the court said, adding that they had "knowingly lied to their families".

Of the other defendants, Dr Philippe van Winkelberg and Christophe Letien received a one-year suspended sentence, and Alain Peligat and journalist Marie-Agnes Peleran were each given six-month suspended terms, French media reports.

Mr Breteau, a former volunteer firefighter, set up Zoe's Ark in 2005, initially to aid victims of the December 2004 Asian tsunami.

In April 2007, the charity announced a campaign to evacuate 10,000 young orphans from Darfur in western Sudan, which was suffering a humanitarian crisis following five years of civil war. Zoe's Ark said it planned to place the children, all mainly under five years old, in foster care with French families.

However, the 103 children the charity was putting on to a plane from Chad to France in 2007 were found to be largely from Chad itself, and were not orphans at all.

The court heard damning testimony from Nathalie Cholin, a volunteer nurse who had provided psychological support to medical teams in Chad.

She portrayed Mr Breteau as an "all-powerful manipulator" who had convinced her at a meeting in Paris that his mission in Chad would rescue Darfur orphans find them homes in France.

Assurances were given, she said, that the operation was perfectly legal: "He told us we were acting under the 1951 Geneva Convention and I did not imagine an operation like this could be organised without the backing of the authorities."

However, once in Chad, Ms Cholin found the children were "in good health" and were "crying and asking to go back to where they had come from".

For Eric Breteau, "children had to be brought back at any price", she told the court, adding that she believed he was under "a certain pressure" from the families wishing to adopt the "orphans".

Source: BBC